Roundup: Unifying the prohibitions across departments

The federal government has issued new guidelines for foreign intelligence likely obtained through torture, so that it now covers the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada. This means that they are prohibited from using such information, except if it’s going to save lives either from an imminent terrorist attack or protecting Canadian troops on an overseas mission. This appears to harmonize direction handed down earlier to the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA, so that all national security agencies (which are now under the same parliamentary oversight regime and will soon be under an independent arm’s length national security oversight regime) will have the same rules and restrictions. For some, it’s reassuring that the government is taking the issue seriously, but for others, the caveat isn’t good enough, and they need to issue a full prohibition, no caveats, no exceptions, full stop. Stephanie Carvin has more reaction to the announcement here:

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Roundup: One is less than five

As the whole Bill Morneau issue continues to run on outrage fumes, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s office has been unhelpful in the least when it comes to trying to put this issue to bed. Two days ago her office said that “fewer than five” ministers held assets indirectly, and when this came up in QP on Wednesday, Trudeau confirmed what certain journalists had noted from the public disclosures – that it was Morneau and Jody Wilson-Raybould, who had since divested those shares. End of story. But no, then Dawson’s office responded to reports in the Globe and Mail that they were somehow “at odds” with the PM over just how many ministers were in such a situation (The Globe? Sensationalize something? Unbelievable!), and that one – Monreau – qualified as “less than five.” And that set the Twitter Machine ablaze, and turned QP in the gong show that it was of demanding to know which five ministers it was, despite the fact that this had already been answered on numerous occasions.

Yes, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics legislation is a mess that MPs refuse on a continual basis to do anything about when the issues are pointed out. Yes, Mary Dawson herself has largely been seen as unhelpful because she has had a tendency to read her mandate so narrowly that issues brought before her are deemed out of her purview. But as I’ve stated before, it’s rapidly turning into a job that nobody else wants, and given the very narrow criteria for a new one, it’s no wonder that the government is having a hard time filling the post, and we may be stuck with Dawson forever as a result.

 

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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: There is no conflict with Bill C-27

Of the many Morneau Shepell conspiracy theories going around the past few weeks, the one that probably irritates me the most is the Bill C-27 iteration, especially in the way that fellow reporters and pundits will opine on the topic. The theory goes that Bill Morneau is allegedly in an “apparent” conflict of interest because a) when he was with Morneau Shepell, he advocated for the creation of targeted benefit plans; b) when he became finance minister, he sponsored Bill C-27, An Act to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985, which allows for the creation of targeted benefit plans in federally regulated sectors, and c) because he still had shares in Monreau Shepell (albeit indirectly) that it would enrich him if the bill passed, and hey, the share price of Morneau Shepell went up when the bill was tabled (never mind that it returned to its former price weeks later). It’s all ludicrous when you actually understand what’s going on, but since the NDP proffered this latest theory as part of Morneau’s alleged misdeeds, it’s been repeated uncritically, and it’s starting to get on my nerves.

First of all, last I checked people get into politics all the time to advance issues that they care about, and Morneau was a recognized expert on pensions. And pension reform was one of the things he was charged with undertaking when he became finance ministers. The pension debate has been going on for years, and targeted benefit plans are a recent iteration that several groups, including CARP, have been advocating for. Now, the NDP are opposed to them because they think that everyone should get a defined benefit plan like was the case in the 1950s, never mind that the actuarial tables don’t actually support them anymore, given that people stopped smoking two packs a day and dying early. (No, seriously – talk to an economist and they’ll tell you that this is a real thing). And Morneau Shepell is just one company that deals with administering these kinds of plans, and C-27 would not mandate them – it would simply give federally regulated industries the option to use them.

But the bigger issue is this notion that it was somehow inappropriate for Moneau personally to sponsor the bill. The problem? That ministers don’t sponsor bills as individuals. Government legislation is put forward on behalf of the government – meaning Cabinet as a whole. A minister sponsors the bill as the office holder because they have to answer for how this bill affects their departments, and in this case, it’s the Department of Finance. If there was a cabinet shuffle tomorrow and someone else became finance minister, it wouldn’t affect the bill because the office holder sponsors it to respond on behalf of the department. It has little to do with Morneau himself, and ministers don’t sponsor bills because they’re interested in the subject matter. (Note: This is why it’s a problem that there is no Government Leader in the Senate to sponsor government bills introduced in the Senate). Trying to say that it was inappropriate for Morneau to sponsor this bill, or that it can’t go ahead under his name, is civically illiterate nonsense, and reporters should know this. But they don’t.

As for Morneau’s shares, if they had been in a blind trust, we would likely still be having this conversation because he would have still been making money on them if they increased in value as they were gradually divested at a pace nobody would know about. A blind trust is not some panacea, but people have glommed onto it like some kind of ethical talisman. That’s likely why Mary Dawson said that an ethics screen was a more appropriate mechanism, and lo, it was established; likewise, it’s why she was apparently surprised by Moreau’s decision to divest his shares – because it’s unnecessary, but a number of pundits have declared that this is the thing to do without necessarily thinking it through. Also, Dawson didn’t say she was “concerned” about C-27, or that she was about to launch an investigation into it – she said she would follow-up with Morneau, and I’m pretty confident that she is going to come back and say that there is no actual issue here.

And this is partially why I’m getting tired of this constant wailing and gnashing of teeth about Morneau’s “apparent” conflicts – because if you actually stop to think about them, there are no apparent conflicts. The “appearance” of conflict has been put forward by people lining up information in a way that looks bad in order to make political gain, and We The Media have been repeating it uncritically rather that running it through a bullshit filter and declaring that yup, this is bullshit. (Most especially the attempts to drag the Bank of Canada and the Bombardier loan into this). But there is also some Tall Poppy Syndrome at work here (Morneau’s wealthy? Well we couldn’t have that!), and this urge by some of the punidtariat to moralize without thinking through the facts, while at the same time the Twitter mobbing ramps up. We really haven’t been doing our jobs here.

My last thought on this is that this is really endearing the Ethics Commissioner position for someone to apply for it. Given the strict requirements, and the fact that this latest episode has demonstrated that MPs can’t get their act together on their own ethics regime (seriously – they adopted this system, refused to change it when the flaws were pointed out, and then turn around an insist that the it’s not enough to just follow the rules that they put into place), I’m increasingly having a hard time imagining someone wanting to take on this job. We may wind up with Mary Dawson in this job forever.

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Roundup: Preferential tax treatment warranted?

The hits keep on coming when it comes to the rhetoric about the proposed small business tax changes. If you listened to doctors, you would think that the government was outlawing self-incorporation. They’re not. If you listen to the Conservatives, it’s a “massive tax hike” and “hugely complex changes” which also doesn’t quite scan – yes, there is some complexity in how they plan to enforce the changes, but that’s not the same thing.

People also keep insisting that these changes won’t allow them to use their incorporation for savings purposes (whether for a buffer or for a maternity leave), which again, is not the case as the new rules have been outlined.

https://twitter.com/lindsaytedds/status/900542218041044992

Of course, when these facts meet their rhetoric, we have been assaulted with yet more wailing and gnashing of teeth that these preferential tax treatments are a “reward” for the risks that these entrepreneurs take. Which again, doesn’t actually fly with the research. (See Kevin Milligan’s thread starting here, which I won’t reproduce in its entirety).

In fact, you can make a number of arguments about whether the government should be subsidising the risk of entrepreneurs. Also, the it should be restated that preferential tax rates are not the reward for becoming an entrepreneur – there are other rewards inherent in the role.

Instead, we come back to the government’s argument about tax fairness, and why those who choose to self-incorporate and have families to split/sprinkle their income with should be the only ones to enjoys such privileges. Nobody seems to be able to answer that question. Funnily enough. Instead, it’s more disingenuous rhetoric and outright falsehoods about what’s being proposed here, that benefits only the very wealthy few for whom this kind of tax “planning” makes sense.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne takes on the notion that small businesses should get preferential tax rates for risk-taking, while taking down the critics of his arguments, who similarly are building cases on false premises.

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Roundup: Forcing a narrative onto Petronas’ facts

Over the past few days, we’ve seen a spike in concern trolling editorials about the state of natural resources projects in Canada, predicated by Petronas’ decision to cancel the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant in BC. And reading through these editorials, be they from John Ivison, the National Post editorial board, or Licia Corbella (well, that one I’m not bothering to read or link to because she’s a fabulist who doesn’t deserve clicks), but the effect is the same – woe is Canada’s energy sector because of too much government regulation. They also claim that the excuse of market conditions is just political cover.

The problem with that, however, is that it doesn’t actually take the facts into account – it’s merely asserting their pre-existing narrative onto the situation, which is why it’s well worth your time to read Andrew Leach’s exploration of the economic case and conditions for why Pacific NorthWest didn’t go ahead. And when people like Ivison say that projects are going ahead in the US and Australia, Leach explains why (and it has a lot to do with pre-existing infrastructure that BC doesn’t have). So yes, there is a very big market reason why the project was cancelled, and perhaps these editorialists should actually read up on just what that is before they make facile pronouncements, because trying to force a narrative onto the facts is doing a disservice to Canadians.

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Roundup: The great Alberta merger

Following 95 percent results on both Progressive Conservative and Wildrose Alliance party referendums, it looks like the new United Conservative Party in Alberta is a go, with the big question being who will be the interim leader while they formalize the process and start an actual leadership selection process. And hey, that could mean some internecine warfare right off the start. The death of the PC party in that province is a bit of an odd thing, but not entirely out of keeping with Alberta’s political history of single-party dynasties for long runs that eventually peter out and die, but what is left in the wake will be the big question.

Where the more centrist voters will go is the big question, because I’m not entirely certain that they’ll all migrate to the UCP, especially with the Wildrose component playing such a big role in it. While Jason Kenney spent the last year trying to convince people that a PC and a Wildrose vote would equal two against the NDP, I’m not sure the math is actually that solid. Why? Aside from the fact that it glosses over some of the history of the last provincial election, what the merger papers over in particular is the growing gap between rural and urban voters in the province, where riding redistribution has meant that the gerrymandered rural ridings no longer hold the weight that they once did. Make no mistake, there was a very big urban/rural divide between the PC and Wildrose parties, and much of that is along the social conservatism issue. Wildrose voters weren’t only outraged about the fiscal profligacy of later PC governments as they were about the fact that they capitulated on social issues, particularly around LGBT rights that they remain firmly opposed to. It’s why they pushed Danielle Smith out of the party (leading her to cross the floor to Prentice’s PCs at the time), and Jason Kenney and Brian Jean are going to have a hell of a time trying to square this particular circle when they try to build their “free enterprise coalition” as though the social conservative issues won’t rear their heads. What this merger may end up doing is regenerating the centrist parties in the province (take your pick between the Alberta Liberals, who have a new, credible leader, and the Alberta Party) now that the amorphous, centrist PC party is no more.

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Roundup: Government vs opposition duties

While I’ve written on the topic before, comments made by Government House Leader Bardish Chagger on her tabled “discussion paper” on trying to make the House of Commons more “efficient” really rankled over the weekend. In particular, Chagger said the proposals were trying to find the balance between the government’s “duty to pass legislation and the opposition’s right to be heard.”

No. Just no. And here’s Philippe Lagassé to explain why.

The whole point of Parliament is not to ensure that government passes legislation. The point is to hold it to account, and that often means slowing it down and ensuring that it doesn’t overstep its bounds, which it is wont to do. Already it’s a problem that government backbenchers don’t do their duty and due diligence when it comes to keeping a check on the government – most are happy to toe the line in order to be considered for a cabinet post, which is a problem in and of itself, and we’ve seen this attitude of being “team players” amplify in the last number of years, particularly after the minority government years, when message discipline became paramount above all else, which is why I worry about how the backbenches will react to this proposition by the government. Will they willingly surrender their responsibilities of accountability because they want to be seen as being onside with Cabinet (particularly after the recent defeats of cabinet on those private members’ bills and Senate public bills?) Maybe.

What worries me more is the way that Chagger phrased the opposition’s “right to be heard.” We’re seeing increasingly that with this government and their insistence on constant broad consultations, they will listen, then go ahead with their original plans. I worry that this is how they are starting to feel about parliament – that they’ll hear the concerns of the opposition or the Senate, and then bully through regardless. Parliament is not a focus group to “consult” with, and I’m not sure that they’re quite getting that, particularly given Chagger’s statement. Accountability is not just politely listening, and the opposition is not there to just deliver an opposing viewpoint. There needs to be a tension and counter-balance, and right now I’m not sure that this government quite gets the need for that tension, particularly when they keep mouthing platitudes about working together collaboratively and whatnot. Then again, I’m not sure that the opposition necessarily gets the extent of their responsibilities either, which is depressing. Regardless, Chagger’s case for these reforms is built on a foundation of sand. Most should be fully opposed and defeated soundly for the sake of the very existential nature of our parliament.

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Roundup: The “good parts” of populism?

I will confess that the eleventy different appearances on every conceivable political show over the past week by Preston Manning to coincide with his eponymous institute’s networking conference over the weekend has had me a bit preoccupied. Everyone is eager to talk about the rise in populism, and whether Trumpism will make its way to Canada in a more visible form (not that we haven’t seen in here before already, with Rob Ford as the most obvious example), but what gets me is when Manning starts waxing about harnessing the “good parts” of populism rather than the ugly side that has led to things like Brexit and the Trumpocalypse, and he goes on at length about history of prairie populism and how he perceives that to be a positive thing. Granted, his particular perspective on that is more than a little biased, considering that his father’s brand of prairie populism made him premier of Alberta for a number of years, and Manning’s crafting that into the Reform Party got him to Ottawa for several more years. But reading some of the accounts of some of that prairie populism years later – in particular this account of the rise of the CCF in Saskatchewan and how they became another craven political party by the time of Tommy Douglas’ provincial demise – makes me think of growing up gay in Alberta, where that “prairie populism” left its mark in a province that was far less socially progressive and with parties that were less willing to be so, being dragged kicking and screaming to the Supreme Court of Canada. I didn’t grow up seeing the “good” side of prairie populism, which is why I struggle to reconcile with Manning trying to find the good parts of populist sentiment to embrace. I am having a hard time trying to find the “good parts” of breeding cynical distrust in institutions, and this narrative of “pure” people versus “corrupt elites,” and in waging wars against the media that follows that narrative’s lead. You wouldn’t think that politicians would want to play with the fire that is distrust, and yet they keep reaching for the lighter. I think Manning may be playing things a bit too optimistically, and may be a bit too naively, for my comfort level.

Chris Selley looks at the Manning Conference and some Conservative behaviour in recent weeks, and wonders if the party no longer stands for anything other than a series of shared grievances as opposed to some actual policy or ideology. (One could argue that they ditched ideology a while ago and have simply become right-flavoured populists, made most especially manifest when they went ahead with the GST cut that every single economist told them not to do). Kady O’Malley leaves us with a warning about drawing too many conclusions based on the Manning Conference’s schedule alone rather than the discussions that people were having on the floor of the event, which not only saw some of its biggest draw ever, but also seemed to be very much more about the leadership race than it was about those panels about “radical Islamic terrorism” and so on.

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Roundup: Butchered applause lines

Now that the French “debate” has passed, it looks like today is the day that Kevin O’Leary will announce his candidacy for the Conservative leadership – something most of the other candidates will probably welcome given that it will divert everyone’s attention from the embarrassing debacle that was the “debate,” and I do use the term loosely. As with previous events in this contest, there was no debate, just a line-up of talking points, only this time it was mostly in mangled French, some of which was utterly incomprehensible.

Not to say that there wasn’t some artificial drama during the horror show. Kellie Leitch in full butchered French and Steven Blaney both had their sight set on Maxime Bernier and attacked him out of the gate (while Erin O’Toole, in very slow sentences, pleaded with them not to fight), and for the first 45 minutes at least, all anyone could talk about was supply management, before the moved onto softwood lumber – because apparently dairy and forestry are Quebec’s only two industries. And then when it came to questions of national security, it was all manner of fumbled pearl-clutching (and it was like you could watch them grasping for that strand of pearls and missing it every time) as a number of them insisted that they were for immigration but wanted to ensure that they weren’t letting in terrorists. Brad Trost decided to go full-Trump and declare that we ban immigration from “pro-radical Islamist” regions (but don’t worry, he doesn’t hate all immigrants – he married one!).

If you’re looking for a professional evaluation of everyone’s proficiency in French, CBC assembled an expert panel to grade everyone, and based on my own personal observations, Lisa Raitt did better than most expectations (but was still mostly reading her responses), and Chris Alexander, for all of his other weaknesses in this race, had one of the best grasps of the language of any of them. Rick Petersen, the other also-ran who doesn’t have a seat, also had a really great grasp of French and was one of the only people speaking off the cuff – doubly impressive given that he’s an Anglo and not Francophone. And as for Deepak Obhrai, people keep saying “points for trying!” or “At least he showed up, unlike O’Leary!” well, there were actual times when he was just uttering phonetic gibberish – and pointing while doing it.

But, as Martin Patriquin writes, none of this is going to matter after a few hours today because once O’Leary is in the race, none of it is going to matter.

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