Roundup: Turning down the committee

It was pretty much as expected. The Commons ethics committee met yesterday and the opposition MPs assembled pleaded with the Liberal majority on the committee to think of the children – err, I mean, think about the meaning of holding the government to account when it came to the demand to call for the PM to appear to answer questions about the Ethics Commissioner’s findings regarding his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island. I will grant that the Liberals could have insisted that they go in camera for this, but didn’t. Rather, they simply said that, having read the report, and taking into account that the PM had apologised, answered questions in the media, and would be answering questions in QP on this topic, that it was enough. And so the motion was defeated 6-3, which surprised no one.

From the arguments presented, there is a little more that we could dig into. For example, Nathan Cullen said he wanted the PM’s suggestions on how to improve the rules – but if he cared about those, he would have taken the many suggestions that Mary Dawson has been making over the past decade and implemented those, but he, nor his party, nor any parliamentarian, has been keen to do that. And his worrying that the PM is ultimately accountable to parliament is true, but that ultimately means that if Cullen is so concerned, he can move a motion of non-confidence in the PM on the NDP’s next Supply Day and try to convince the Liberal ranks of the merits of his argument. As for the Conservatives, they seemed far more interested in seeing some grovelling the PM, and demanding that he repay the full cost of the trip (which would include the Challenger and security costs), never mind that during the Harper era, his “reimbursement” for his own private trips was supposed to be at economy fares, but nobody could find fares as low as the ones he was repaying (and there were several incidents of party stalwarts getting subsidized airfare improperly). And that whole incident nearly six years ago when they wanted Harper to appear to answer questions on the ClusterDuff Affair? Well, that was then and this is now, and Trudeau promised to be more open and transparent. (Err, remember when Stephen Harper rode into office on the white horse of accountability and transparency? Yeah, me neither).

And while opposition staffers chirp at my on the Twitter Machine about how it’s the role of MPs to hold the government to account – true – and that a committee setting is less theatrical than QP – not true – I will reiterate that the point of this exercise is not actually about accountability, but rather about gathering media clips under the protection of parliamentary privilege. If you think there would be sober questions asked, and that this would be a serious exercise in accountability, then you’re sorely mistaken. It remains a political calculus, and Trudeau has determined that it’s not worth it to spend an hour having the most torqued accusations hurled at him in the hopes that something sticks, and hoping for that “gold” clip that they can share around social media. If we’re going to lament the lack of accountability, then everyone needs to take a share of responsibility there – not just the PM.

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Roundup: PBO confirmations on tax changes

The Parliamentary Budget Officer came out with a report yesterday on the proposed tax changes around passive income, and all of the headlines screamed that they could net the federal government $6 billion. “Oh, but it’s not a cash grab,” opposition MPs said sarcastically in return, including during QP yesterday. The problem, of course, is that if they read, that $6 billion would be over two decades, and more importantly, that the PBO confirmed that three percent of personal corporation holders generate some 90 percent of passive income, which confirms that the point of the measures is to target those who incorporate for the sole purpose of investing and taking advantage of the lower rates as a part of that.

To help walk us through the report and its findings, here are Kevin Milligan and Lindsay Tedds:

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Roundup: Release the Mandate Tracker!

The government unveiled their “mandate tracker” website yesterday, put out by the Privy Council Office, which aims to track the progress of commitments made in ministerial mandate letters, which the government (rightly) touts is the first time these kinds of things are being publicly tracked. But the grousing immediately began – that these are not campaign commitments being tracked (and really, it would be inappropriate for PCO to be tracking those), that some of the progress is subjective, and that it’s a “propaganda tool” for the government.

That’s fair criticism, and sure, it’s cute that the government calls promises they no longer intend to keep as “not being pursued” (rightly in some cases, like electoral reform – because it was a stupid promise), and yes, there is some subjectivity to some of the measures like how they’ve improved Question Period – and if anyone wants to compare how it’s being run right now as compared to the zoo that it was in the Harper era, with the jeering, hooting baboons and the reading of non-sequiturs, they can go right ahead, but it is different, and I would argue, better most of the time. (Yes, many of the government’s responses are pabulum – but given how mendacious and disingenuous most of the questions are, that’s not a surprise either).

Suffice to say, it’s a step. The Conservatives never put anything like this out for public consumption, and had a habit of retconning some of their own promises (remember the promise around wait times? And how they tried to recast it as a different promise among the five that they made and supposedly kept? Good times). And while sure, it looks like they’re grading their own homework, you don’t have to take their word for it. You the public, and We The Media can fact-check these things, and hey, there’s something in the window for us to fact-check against. Great. I’m failing to see where the downside of any of this is.

Meanwhile, here is some more informed analysis:

https://twitter.com/JenniferRobson8/status/930543481419808768

https://twitter.com/JenniferRobson8/status/930544368938897409

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Roundup: Mid-term check-in

Over in Maclean’s, John Geddes put together a deep dive into the current government’s midterm woes, and it’s well worth the read – and it’s a pretty long read too. But once you’re done (seriously, this post isn’t going anywhere), I would want to push back on some of the things that he highlights.

For starters, I think that there is something to be said for a government that is willing to walk back on bad promises, and they made a few. Most notably is electoral reform, and the fact that they could actually take the step of smothering it the cradle is actually something that they should be congratulated for. We dodged a bullet with that one, and I wish that my fellow journalists would get that through their heads. Likewise, Bardish Chagger taking back her plans to “modernise” the way that the House of Commons operates is similarly another dodged bullet – most of her plans were terrible and would make things worse, not better. Casting them as failures does a disservice to the fact that they backed down from bad promises. When it comes to Bill Morneau and his troubles, I think it also bears mentioning that the vast majority of the attacks against his tax proposals (and his own personal ethics situation) are largely unfounded, based on disingenuous framing or outright lies designed to try and wound him. The attacks have largely not been about the policies themselves (even though there were actual problems that should have been asked about more), and I think that bears some mention.

I also think that Geddes doesn’t pay enough attention to some of the backroom process changes that the government has been spearheading, particularly on the Indigenous files – many of the problems mentioned need to have capacity issues addressed before funding is increased because we have seen numerous examples of places where money was shovelled out without that capacity-building being done, and it made situations worse. Is it frustrating that some of this is going slowly? Yes. But some of the ground-up work of reforming how the whole system works, and ensuring that once more money flows that it can be spent effectively is something that we should be talking more about, because process matters. We simply don’t like to talk about it because we labour under this belief that nobody reads process stories, so we ignore them, which is why I think some of the calls about “failures” are premature or outright wrong – things are changing that we can’t immediately see. That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t happening.

Finally, there is a list of major legislation coming down the pipe, and I think it bears reminding that the focus on consultation before making some of these changes is as much about inoculating the government against criticism that was levelled against their predecessors as it was about trying to get some of this complex legislation right. Do they get it right all the time? No. There is a demonstrated record of barrelling ahead on things with good intentions and not properly thinking through the consequences *cough*Access to Information*cough* and when it blows up in their faces, they’re not really sure how to respond because they think that their good intentions count for something. I’m not sure that simply focusing on the perceived inexperience of ministers helps when it comes to trying to meaningfully discuss these issues, but here we are.

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Roundup: BC causes Western alienation?

As a former Albertan, I often find myself unmoved by tales of “Western alienation” because they are so often based on lies that Albertans like to tell themselves – that they put the oil underground themselves, or that the National Energy Programme caused the global recession and crash in oil prices, or that their inability to properly run a provincial budget that doesn’t rely on resource revenues to paper over the problems with it is somehow the fault of others. And when I see people like Rona Ambrose concern trolling about how “Western alienation” is real and dangerous, I find myself even more unsympathetic because she and her former colleagues tend to go out of their way to foment these feelings in order to score temporary points against the government of the day. And then there’s this kind of nonsense that gets thrown in – that somehow BC is part of the cause of “Western alienation,” as though BC wasn’t also in the west.

It’s fine if Alberta wants to have its own particular regional character. That’s part of what makes Canada so great – that we have regional characters that are distinct and yet make up part of the whole of the country. And hey, we don’t always get along, because we do have different issues and priorities in a country as vast as ours. But I also find it a bit, well, rich, that a province that is as rich as Alberta’s – and it is the richest province my pretty much any measure – thinks that they’re hard done by as a result. But while they enjoy roads that are frequently paved, or infrastructure that isn’t crumbling around them, and whine that they’re so hard done by, my patience runs thin because they don’t seem to realise that not every province has it as good as theirs. And to top it off, their politicians tell even more lies about how equalization works in order to further drive these feelings of “alienation” for their own benefit. It’s shameless and we should be better than this, but who cares about trying to cause discord for the sake a few votes? It’s not like any of this “alienation” that they foment is dangerous, right? Oh, wait…

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Roundup: Let’s not lobotomize the GG

There have been so, so many bad takes on the whole issue of Her Excellency Julie Payette’s speech to scientists last week, but there’s one published by the National Post yesterday that was so terrible, that Paul Wells’ incredulous reaction is something that matches my own. Fraser Valley University history professor Barbara Messamore writes that Julie Payette should be a scripted automaton because that’s the role that Governors General are expected to be.

No. Absolutely not.

This is the kind of thing that drives me completely insane. This constant need to keep politics as tightly scripted and lifeless as possible is part of what is killing our democracy, and it’s telling that so many people flocked to the unscripted (and unhinged) Donald Trump because of his “authenticity.” And to demand this of a vice-regal position is completely overkill. I also continue to boggle at the number of pundits who think that Payette somehow was commenting on live issues under debate. I’ve asked, and yet no one can point to where any of our mainstream parties are denying climate change, or who support creationism in our school curricula. They don’t exist in Canada, which is why the insistence that these are somehow issues under debate is baffling.

But beyond that, I find it unfathomable that we would want brilliant and accomplished individuals for the role, given the immense power at their disposal (should they choose to set off a constitutional crisis to exercise most of it), or the tough decisions that may be asked of them in any number of post-election scenarios, while we simultaneously demand that they be utterly vacuous so as not to cause problems. But while Payette may have rankled the delicate sensibilities of some, she also did not cross a partisan line which is what matters in this situation. Why we should force her to lobotomise herself for the sake of smiling and waving and mouthing beige platitudes makes no sense. If that’s what we want, then why not simply put some bilingual starlet in the role so that she can look good in photos and can smile and wave to her heart’s content? Why bother looking for someone accomplished if we’re not going to let them speak or exercise the judgment that we ask of them when it counts? If we let Payette continue to go unscripted, could she make a mistake? Maybe. She’s human. But it keeps her authentic and the reflection of her true self and intellect, and that to me is far more important than the fact that she may bruise a few feelings from time to time. We’re grown-ups. We should be able to handle the odd bump, and it’s far better than the alternative.

Meanwhile, Michael Coren defends Her Excellency’s “mocking” of religion from his own religious perspective, and he calls out the Conservatives’ attempts to make political hay out of this, which he deems akin to “prayer abuse” – something refreshing amidst days of fainting couches and clutched pearls.

 

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Roundup: Trying to score dangerous points

In amidst all of the really bad takes on Governor General Julie Payette’s commentary the other night, I find myself more than a little horrified that the Conservatives have decided to play political games around this. More specifically, they are attacking Payette obliquely by directing their comments at the prime minister, who didn’t leave well enough alone when he said it was great that the GG stood up for science. And great that she did, but this was also in the context of there being a willingness to torque the comments into a bit of a scandal, and to blow them completely out of proportion.

So what did the Conservatives do? It started with a Members’ Statement before QP, where MP Ziad Aboultaif denounced the supposed attack by the PM on people of faith (which isn’t what happened), and was followed up by a Facebook post by Andrew Scheer who said much the same thing – entirely ignoring that Trudeau is a practicing Catholic who has been public about the value that he places on his faith.

But what irks me the most about all of this is that it’s an example where our elected officials keep being cute about our most vital institutions – the Crown – and politicising them in subtle ways. When the Conservatives were in power, it was aggressively giving things a royal re-brand (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of), but the manner in which it was handled, along with the abdication on the opposition benches of similarly owning the fact that this country is a constitutional monarchy, allowed the media to paint the exercise as a Conservative nostalgia for the days of colonialism, and to tar the whole of our monarchical institutions with a partisan taint. And I fear that Scheer is going down the same path here in trying to stir up controversy around these largely innocuous statements by the GG in order to try and whip up his base. It’s a very dangerous game, especially because Scheer and his entourage have proven themselves to be ham-fisted in pretty much everything that they do, and that increases the chances of this blowing up in everyone’s faces, and the very last thing we need to do is try to politicize the Crown or the GG in this country. So seriously – knock it the hell off. This is not something that’s worth scoring a few cheap partisan points off of. You’ll only hurt everyone in the process.

Meanwhile, Colby Cosh has made one of the only reasonable takes on the Payette comments in noting that we don’t have rulebooks for Governors General, so they should stick to principles about appearing to arbitrate impartially, particularly because of the powers she possesses. And he’s right. And I would also add that it’s why I find the furore overblown – the existence of climate change and evolution are not partisan issues in Canada, so she’s not actually crossing any partisan lines in her comments. My own weekend column delves further into that aspect, as well as the reminder that she’s not actually a figurehead like so many of the pearl clutchers seem to be demanding from their fainting couches.

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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: The stages of scandal

Kady O’Malley has a piece about the five stages of a Canadian political scandal, and wonders just where the current Bill Morneau imbroglio lies along it. While she’s probably not wrong in that it’s likely hovering near the end-point, I would like to just take a moment to point out that most of this whole affair has been fuelled by weak-sauce allegations and conflated facts, and this particular air of desperation as people keep flinging the equivalent of spaghetti against a wall in the hope that something inevitably sticks.

And there is a complete air of desperation in the latest developments in this case. Bill Morneau paying a $200 fine for failing to disclose his stake in the ownership structure of his French villa – he had disclosed the villa itself – was turned into wails that he was a law-breaker, or that the fine was somehow a sanction for a “conflict of interest” that was never a conflict. And the NDP tried to move a motion to get Bill C-27 withdrawn, because they sailed a conspiracy theory that somehow there was a conflict of interest with a bill that they opposed for ideological reasons, in order to come at a different angle of attack on it. And while is no actual conflict with the bill, it keeps being reported uncritically as though there were.

And that’s probably what gets me the most irritated about these so-called political scandals, is that many are started by poor reporting on thin facts that are designed to be sensational, with follow-ups that are bigger and bigger reaches to the point where it’s a series of mind-numbing conspiracy theories being floated, each of which get amplified in QP. For what? I’m failing to see how imaginary scandals are holding government to account. There are so many other issues that have substantive policy issues that should be debated or explored, and we keep chasing these non-stories because we think there’s blood in the water. But by all means, keep chasing this phantom menace. It’s doing our democracy wonders.

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Roundup: Presenting Her Excellency

Yesterday was the big day, and Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette was installed as the Canada’s 29th Governor General in a ceremony that involved more than a few nods to the Indigenous people, and a lot of music – numbers and artists that surprised many.

As for Payette herself, her installation speech was twenty minutes “from the heart” no script, no notes, and in a dynamic storytelling style about her personal journey, and what she hopes to accomplish in her time as the Vice Regal representative in Canada, drawn from her perspective of seeing a borderless planet from orbit. It also gave a hint about what she may see as her priorities as GG, which will involve promoting STEM (especially for girls), and about helping people unlock their potential by having the right support systems behind them. Personally, I would say that this speech was far beyond anything we’ve seen from the post in more than the past seven years of Payette’s predecessor, and that I believe will serve us well.

Meanwhile, the National Post looked into just what a Governor General does all day, in true Tristin Hopper style.

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