QP: Strange Paradise Papers storylines

With the Paradise Papers dominating the headlines, and the 150th anniversary of Parliament setting the mood on the Hill, there was going to be a mixed tone. Four previous prime ministers, two former Speakers, and a handful of retired senators were in the Galleries to watch for the anniversary and the speeches that would follow QP.

Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he immediately launched into the revelation that Stephen Bronfman was named, then launched the weird non-sequitur about Bronfman going to the state dinner at the White Huose, but the minister of natural resources did not. Trudeau first read a statement about the mass shooting in Texas before noting that they were committed to fighting tax evasion and avoidance. Scheer made the connection between the proposed tax changes and these alleged tax avoiders, and Trudeau reiterated that they were committed to fighting tax evasion. Scheer switched to French to ask again, and Trudeau reiterated his same response. Scheer accused Bronfman of trying to influence the government in protecting offshore accounts. Trudeau said that he would let individuals answer for their own activities, before repeating that they had invested in the CRA and were on track to recoup some $25 billion. Scheer then listed all of the supposed way in which the government was touching the middle class to protect those hiding income offshore, to which Trudeau recited their list of accomplishments in helping the middle class. Guy Caron was up next, railing about Bronfman, the older KPMG investigations, and other avoidance schemes. Trudeau reminded him about the billon-dollar investment they made in the CRA, and fruits that it was yielding. Caron repeated the question, got the same response, and then Alexandre Boulerice took over for the same questions with additional bombast in French, and lo and behold, got much the same answer in French, before going one more round of the very same.

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Senate QP: Jim Carr disputes your questions

With the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline by its proponent still fresh in the minds of many Canadians, it was natural that an appearance by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr in the Senate would prompt a lot of questions. It did not disappoint. Senator Larry Smith led off, wondering about the “evaporation” of energy projects in Canada while the Americans continued to ramp up their own projects. Carr disputed that there was an evaporation, and spoke about the approval of three projects that would create 27,000 jobs and that while they recognized the need to reform the regulatory process, they were approving more projects than they were rejecting. On a supplemental, Smith asked what could be done to better advance Canadian energy security through things like pipelines, and Carr disputed a bit with how it was worded, and noted that the government has certain responsibilities, and upon seeing some shaking heads across the aisle, Carr laid out conditions that have changed since the Energy East pipeline was first proposed, including the price of oil and new approved pipelines including Keystone XL.

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QP: Programming opposite Trudeau-Trump

With Trudeau away at the White House, it was still surprisingly busy in the Commons with most of the desks filled, but not all of the leaders were present. Rona Ambrose led off with the case of Vincent Li, didn’t mention his schizophrenia, and worried about the government looking to end the bulk of mandatory minimum sentences. Jody Wilson-Raybould reminded her that the review boards determined when those found not criminally responsible were eligible for release and discharge when people were deemed not criminally responsible. Ambrose decried that Trudeau voted against Conservative legislation that would ensure that people like Li were locked up for life, but Wilson-Raybould didn’t take the bait, and spoke in generalities about the need for broader criminal justice reform. Ambrose then raised the issue of carbon taxes, claiming that they would lead to jobs flowing south, to which Scott Brison reminded her that while they have had positive job numbers, the global economy is sluggish and they were working to stimulate growth. Luc Berthold then rose for a pair of questions in French to demand that the government lower business taxes and cut carbon taxes. For his first question, François-Philippe Champagne reminded him of their focus on trade, and for his second, Brison repeated his previous response in French. Jenny Kwan led off for the NDP, demanding an end to the safe third country agreement, to which Ahmed Hussen told her that there was no evidence that the US travel ban was having an impact on the agreement. Hélène Laverdière pointed out the illegal border crossing happening, and Hussen repeated his point that the executive order had to do with resettled refugees, not claimants. Laverdière brought up the case of a Quebecker refused entry into the US, to which Dominic LeBlanc reminded her that the US has the sovereign power to decide who goes into their territory but people could bring up concerns with them. Jenny Kwan asked the same again in English, and got the same answer.

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Roundup: Giving the PMO too much credit

Over the past day-and-a-half, everyone and their dog has had an opinion about just what Maryam Monsef was thinking when she stood up in Question Period and said that the electoral reform committee hadn’t done their job in bringing forward a recommendation and then tried to use the Gallagher Index equation as a way of ridiculing their work. And when she stood up in QP to apologise yesterday no less than five times, the opinions got more and more “sure” that everyone knew just what was going on.

And while I am always happy for a Thick of It reference where I can get it, I’ve seen a lot of tweets over the day that have basically posited that Monsef is this vacuous cipher for the PMO, and that she’s just reading the lines assigned to her, and it bothers me. Why? Because Monsef isn’t vacuous. Quite the opposite in fact, and while she may stick to her lines in QP and have all the sweetness of saccharine, she’s very deliberate in the way she responds (as she articulated to John Geddes here). So yes, she prepared for Thursday’s QP and had some lines prepared, including the one about the Gallagher Index, but she also knew that she was going to be bombarded with a bunch of ridiculous questions from the opposition parties who overread the conclusions of the report. Did she go too far? Yes, absolutely, and I think she recognised that. But she’s also been handed a really shit file to manage, and she’s got a tonne of work to do in stick-handling it.

Essentially, the Liberals made a foolish promise that they probably knew they couldn’t keep, but they also managed the expectations around it somewhat with promises for consultation that gives them an out. It was also just one item in a comprehensive reform package, most of the rest of which is well on the way of being implemented, but they went and oversold this one item and now they need to figure out how to break it without looking like they’re breaking it for self-interested reasons. And no, I don’t think they want to break it just because the current system worked out for them – rather, they realised that the alternatives are not actually better for our system in general. Part of how they can hope to break it is to show that the other parties are unreasonable and no consensus can be reached, and to a great extent, the electoral reform committee report demonstrated that, but Monsef went and overshot and her own party members got hit with friendly fire as a result. And now they need to keep up the charade a while longer, but this is something that they need to smother, but they can’t look like that’s their plan, and Monsef has a hell of a job trying to manage that.

Oh, and for everyone who asserts that this is just the PMO pulling the strings instead of the minister, I’m less convinced. I’ve had conversations with people who’ve worked in Queen’s Park who now work here, and their assessment is that this actually is government by cabinet – the centre is not stickhandling everything, and I’m not convinced that Monsef, as junior as she may be, is just a puppet like so many Harper ministers were. The evidence just isn’t there for me.

Meanwhile, Colby Cosh offers some more context for that whole Gallagher Index nonsense, while Paul Wells manages to better interpret Monsef’s reaction and the real reason why the committee failed, which has to do with the referendum question. Andrew Coyne mystifyingly tries to equate the issue with free trade, while again insisting that Monsef is just a cipher for the PM.

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Roundup: Walking out on Wallonia

Talks to save the Canada-EU trade agreement broke down yesterday, and after more than two days of direct talks, trade minister Chrystia Freeland walked out of the meeting and basically declared that it was now impossible for the EU to come to an international trade deal. And really, this was about the Walloons in Belgium who weren’t letting this go through. Wallonia’s president tried to sound an optimistic tone, and said that “difficulties remain” around largely the investor-state dispute resolution mechanism and wanted Justin Trudeau to hold off on his planned trip to Europe next week to finalize the deal so that the Walloons could have more time.

While Freeland said she was ready to get back on a plane and go home to see her kids, it looks like the EU president managed to keep her around for more talks, which may have been the whole point of Freeland’s exit – so that the rest of the EU could pressure Wallonia to come to their senses. While Belgium’s ambassador to Canada also said that the deal wasn’t dead, we did see some of the usual suspects line up to applaud the potential demise of the agreement, like Elizabeth May, the NDP, and the Council of Canadians.

Throughout this, however, I will admit to more than a little distaste at the snide tone of the Conservatives throughout all of this. In QP yesterday, Candice Bergen laid this at the feet of Freeland personally and declared that she would have to “wear it.” Gerry Ritz said that Freeland should have “rolled up her sleeves” and stayed at the table (which she had already been doing), and Rona Ambrose demanded that Justin Trudeau get on a plane and smooth this over himself. And there is this overall tone that the deal had been “gift wrapped” for the Liberals (after Harper had already done two symbolic signings of the agreement before it had been ratified), which is specious and facile. The Liberals have countered that the deal was essentially dead before Freeland resurrected it, largely through reopening some of the negotiations and through declaratory statements to clarify the language in the provisions of the deal, so it’s not like they didn’t do nothing. Quite the opposite, in fact. And one fails to see how it’s Freeland’s fault when pretty much everyone agrees that this is now an internal EU matter that Canada really can’t do anything about. Then again, the Conservative message around other trade deals like softwood lumber are equally fantastical (how they could have forced the Americans to come to an agreement when they clearly aren’t interested is beyond me, and there was a lot of unhappiness with the deal they signed when they first got into office that gave the Americans a victory). Sure, they signed a bunch of deals with small countries with small economies. Sure, they got CETA and TPP off the ground, but they still protected a lot of industries that didn’t necessarily deserve it, nor did they seal those deals either. Trade is a difficult business, and I’m not sure they have the moral authority to be as frankly abusive as they have been on the file.

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Senate QP: Meandering around the issue

After the moving day at the beginning of Commons QP, it was time to head down the hall for Senate QP, with special guest star Jim Carr, minister of natural resources. Once he arrived, a little behind schedule thanks to a vote in the Commons, things got started. Senator Carignan led off, asking about the softwood lumber agreement expiring. Carr began with the traditional thanks and his expression about his admiration for the chamber, and after a couple of technical mic fixes (again), he said that he would be greatly surprised if the agreement did not come up in conversation during the PM’s trip to Washington.

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Roundup: Making adjustments on the fly

Lots of developments in the Senate, so let’s get to it, shall we? Kady O’Malley looks into the ways that the Senate is going through the process of reshaping itself to fit the new reality that they find themselves in, and so far they’ve been doing it in a fair-minded way, tempering some the partisan excesses of the previous parliament while they start adjusting their rules around things like Question Period in the new scheme they’ve developed. I’m still a little hesitant, considering that they’re losing some of the pacing and ability to make exchanges that made Senate QP such a refreshing change from Commons QP, but we’ll see once they start working out the kinks. Meanwhile, the Senate is trying to adapt its Conflict of Interest committee to a reality where there are no “government” senators, and more debate about how to include the growing number of independent senators into that structure. We’ll see how the debate unfolds in the next week, but this is something they are cognisant about needing to tackle, just as they are with how to better accommodate independent MPs with committee selection as a whole. Also, the Senate Speaker has ruled that the lack of a Leader of the Government in the Senate does not constitute a prima facia breach of privilege, convinced by the argument that the lack of a government leader doesn’t affect the Senate’s core ability to review and amend legislation, and that the primary role of the chamber isn’t to hold government to account. I would probably argue that it may not be the primary role, but it is a role nevertheless, but perhaps I’m not qualified enough to say whether that still constitutes an actual breach of privilege, as opposed to just making the whole exercise damned inconvenient and leading to a great number of unintended consequences as they venture into this brave new world of unencumbered independence. At this stage, however, things are all still up in the air, and nothing has really crashed down yet, but it’s a bit yet. By the time that Parliament rises for the summer, we’ll see if all of those broken eggs wound up making a cake, or if we just wind up with a mess.

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