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: 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: Reading the constitution and a map

The constitutional lunacy taking place in Alberta shows no signs of abating, especially now that Jason Kenney has taken his seat in the legislature. Already they have debated a motion to back the province’s fight for pipeline access in BC, but the demands they’re making that Justin Trudeau invoke Section 92(10)(c) of the Constitution are wrong and bogus. Why? That section applies to projects that are of the national interest but are only within a single province’s boundaries – which this pipeline is not. So here’s Andrew Leach to pour some necessary scorn onto the whole thing, while Carissima Mathen, a constitutional law professor, backs him up.

Meanwhile, Kenney is playing an utterly disingenuous game of semantics with his objection to the province’s carbon tax, insisting that it didn’t give them the “social licence” to get their pipelines approved. But to suggest that was the only value of such a tax is to be deliberately misleading. The real purpose of a carbon price is to provide a market signal for industry to reduce their emissions, by providing them a financial incentive for them to do so. It’s proven the most efficient way to reduce emissions in the most cost-effective manner possible, and while correlation may not be causation, it has bene pointed out that those jurisdictions in the country that have implemented carbon pricing have roaring economies, while those resisting one (such as Saskatchewan) don’t. Whether there is a correlation or not, provinces like BC have shown that the carbon tax allows them to lower other taxes which are generally less efficient taxes regardless. As for social licence, it’s part of the overall balancing act to show that there is a sufficient plan to achieve reductions as part of transitioning to a low-carbon future, but I’m not sure that anyone suggested that it would magically end all protests (and if they did, they were fools for doing so). But for Kenney to claim that this was the promise is utter nonsense.

Like the bogus calls to invoke Section 92(10)(c), it’s all about putting forward a plausible-sounding argument in the hopes that the public doesn’t bother to actually read it to see that it’s actually bullshit. But that is apparently how political debate works these days – disingenuous points that don’t actually resemble reality, or lies constructed to look plausible and hoping that nobody calls you on it, and if they do, well, they’re just apologists or carrying water for your opponents. This isn’t constructive or helpful, and it just feeds the politics of anger and resentment, which in turn poisons the discourse. They all know better, but keep doing it because it’s so addictive, but never mind that the house is burning down around them.

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Roundup: Notley’s unconstitutional threats

In Alberta, Rachel Notley’s NDP government had a Throne Speech yesterday that promised all manner of action to try to pressure BC’s NDP government when it comes to the Trans Mountain pipeline problem. Notley, however, decided to take some of Jason Kenney’s bluster and make it her own, promising the ability to block oil shipments to BC that they need for their domestic use. The problem? The Trans Mountain pipeline is regulated by the National Energy Board, meaning it’s federal jurisdiction, and that neither province can do anything to block it or affect what it carries. She’s also echoing the comments that the federal government needs to lean harder on BC, never mind that the NEB has quasi-judicial authority on the issue, and the fact that all BC has done to date is announce a study, or that the federal government has repeated “This pipeline will get built.” It’s a bunch of chest-thumping and borrowed demagoguery that ignores the historical context of what Peter Lougheed threatened in the 1980s, and is rank hypocrisy in that they’re threatening unconstitutional action to combat BC’s threatened unconstitutional action. It’s time for everyone to grow up.

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Roundup: Unserious about peacekeeping promises

News came out yesterday that Canada had lined up 19 Spanish-speaking soldiers for a UN peacekeeping mission to Colombia, only for National Defence to drag their feet until the opportunity closed. With more tales like these, and others about Canada being offered leadership positions in peacekeeping operations and then turning them down repeatedly, is causing a lot of questions to be asked about just how serious we are about the promises the government made during the last election about returning to peacekeeping operations. The Chief of Defence Staff has said that there were questions about operational security, but those claims are being questioned in light of other evidence being presented. There was a very good interview on Power & Politics with Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute and the former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, who challenged many of the points that the government and the military has made, and points to the current culture in DND, which has been out of peacekeeping game for long enough that it’s looking down on those kinds of missions. It’s worth watching if you’ve got five minutes to spare.

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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: Ethics committee theatre incoming

We can look forward to a heap of bad political theatre next week as the Commons’ ethics committee plans to sit on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to demand that the PM appear before them to answer questions in regards to the Ethics Commissioner’s report into his Xmas vacation with the Aga Khan, and to hear from the now-former Commissioner on the report the following day. And you can expect that it’s going to be nothing short of howls of sanctimonious indignation. Oh, and there may be legitimate procedural roadblocks to their plans given that the report hasn’t been presented to the Commons yet, according to a former Commons procedural clerk.

Regarding the demands that Trudeau appear, it would be highly unlikely that the Liberals on the committee will let that go ahead (and they have the votes to block it if necessary). And if the Conservatives cry foul, they can turn around and point to the fact that they blocked an attempt by the committee in the last Parliament to have Stephen Harper appear before them to answer questions related to the ClusterDuff Affair, and fair is fair, besides which, Trudeau has answered in Question Period and the media on this issue. And really, why would a PM expose himself to an hour of MPs trying to play Matlock, asking questions that are all traps designed to get him to incriminate himself, and then baying at the moon when he refuses to answer. It would be worse than the performances we see in Question Period these days (which are generally terrible), and we’d get the same quality of answers from Trudeau, which will be some fairly pat and trite lines unless they trip him up (which is the whole point).

Oh, one might say (and Althia Raj did on Power & Politics last night), if they want to show that this is really a new era of accountability and transparency, they it might be in their best interests to go ahead and have him go before the committee, to which I remind people what happened when Thomas Mulcair appeared before a committee to answer questions related to the satellite offices issue. Mulcair blustered, obfuscated, and then proffered a fiction that Conservatives did it too (they didn’t – the “evidence” was a riding office and a party office in the same mini-mall but several doors down from one another, but hey, they were on the same sign by the parking lot), and as he did so, all of his partisans flooded social media praising that “this is what accountability looks like.” I’m not really sure that this is the kind of thing we want to revisit.

As for Dawson’s appearance, it’s “as an individual” since she will be officially retired by then, and we can imagine that it will be much the same – each side fishing for a media clip that fits their established narrative, which they will then flood social media with – assuming that she can answer, given the procedural issue identified. And we can imagine how many questions about Bill Morneau will be asked, followed by the Liberals asking how many investigations she conducted on Conservative ministers, and on and on it will go. It won’t be a constructive use of anyone’s time, but why does that matter when you’ve got cheap political theatre to perform?

Speaking of Dawson, here’s her exit interview with the Globe and Mail in which she defends how much time she took to write that report, confirms that she didn’t discuss Bill C-27 with Morneau (never mind that doing so would violate cabinet confidence and cabinet secrecy – funny how the Globe continually ignores that fact), and defends the advice she gave to Morneau about a blind trust (“You know what the hell’s in there. That’s a defect on a blind trust”).

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Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

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