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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Roundup: A new GG and a new NDP leader

Today is the day that Julie Payette is sworn in, and will soon be known as Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada. To that end, she has been receiving the customary signals of office over the past couple of weeks, as she takes on the roles of the chancellor (or “Principal Companion”) of the Order of Canada, the Order of Military Merit, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, and the prior of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (with note that the Queen is the fount of all Canadian honours).

Payette will have an extremely busy schedule from here on in, acting in the ceremonial capacity that state functions demand, doing diplomacy domestically and internationally, becoming a patron to charities, and keeping on top of her constitutional duties. It’s a big job, but given Payette’s accomplishments I’m quite sure that she’ll be up to the task.

Payette is also the first GG since the 1950s who comes to the position without a spouse, so she has nobody to help share the burden of appearances with, so that will be an interesting change from the past few appointments, where there has been this sense of a two-for-one deal between the GG and their highly-accomplished spouses. It will also, unfortunately, mean that more people will be attempting to download the whole “First Lady” nonsense to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau when the closest Canadian equivalent was the “Chatelaine of Rideau Hall” (when the GG was male – I’m not sure what the male of equivalent of Chatelaine is), presuming that one doesn’t count Prince Philip given that he’s actually the spouse of our head of state (and we don’t have a “First Family” because we have a royal family).

Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on the meaning of the GG as our Commander-in-Chief in Canada.

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Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.

For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.

Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).

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Roundup: Shadow ministers vs critics

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is set to release his full critic list today, not only to be dubbed as a shadow cabinet, but with plans to style the critics as “shadow ministers.” Now, this is normally the kinds of British/Westminster nomenclature that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, which is why I suspect that a fanboy like Scheer is doing it, but I would raise a particular note of caution – that unless Scheer plans to actually have his “shadow minsters” act in the way that Westminster shadow ministers actually operate, then it’s going to quickly come across as a twee affectation.

So what kinds of differences would matter between a British shadow minister and a Canadian critic? For one, it’s a far more institutionalised role, where a shadow minister plays the function of someone who is able to fill the cabinet role immediately if the government were to fall, rather than the kinds of placeholders that we’ve come to expect in Canadian critic roles. Shadow ministers, in my observation, tend to be in place for a fairly long time and develop expertise in the portfolio, and they have more structured time to visit the departments and get briefings from civil servants, which doesn’t seem to be the way that Canadian critics operate (who do get some briefings, but in my estimation, are not to the same level). Of course, one of the reasons why is that cabinet construction in the UK doesn’t have to deal with the same regional considerations that Canada does, so it’s far easier to have someone who was in a shadow cabinet position slide into cabinet, whereas in Canada, the federalist calculations may not work out.

Another key difference is that UK shadow ministers are not members of select committees, whereas in Canada, critics are leads for their party on standing committees. Why this is different is because in the UK, it not only lets the shadow minister spend more time with their portfolio, but it gives the committee members more independence because they don’t have the lead on the file shepherding them. Just by numbers alone, I’m guessing that this isn’t going to happen here (another advantage to the UK’s House of Commons having 650 members instead of 338). One could also remark that the current Conservative Party in Canada hasn’t demonstrated a great deal of willingness to give committees a great deal of independence (especially seeing as they turned them into branch plants of the ministers’ offices during the Harper years), but who knows? Maybe Scheer is more serious about it. But unless he wants to reform the way his critics operate, then I’m less sold on billing them as “shadow ministers.”

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Roundup: Those “sexist” tax changes

Pushback on the proposed income tax changes increased in intensity, with the Canadian Medical Association launching broadsides at the policy under the rubric that it’s “sexist” and will drive doctors out of the country, while Conservatives have taken these arguments to social media, Lisa Raitt policing news aggregators and Kellie Leitch penning fundraising letters. Jane Philpott, addressing a CMA conference, assured them that they were operating under misinformation and that the goal of the changes was tax fairness – that those with spouses earning significantly less money or having adult children shouldn’t unfairly benefit from the existing system than those who don’t.

I did try to get some answers as to how this policy was “sexist,” because I’m not entirely convinced that these changes prevent people from using money in the corporation to finance parental leaves, never mind the fact that the previous government made a Very Big Deal about changing the EI system to allow self-employed people to contribute in order to finance maternity leaves – something that received very little uptake. And most of the stories that Raitt pointed to were anecdotal that didn’t point to where these policy changes were a problem – one example was a Facebook post where a dentist insisted that these current policies were what allowed her to keep up with male counterparts, which is an argument that makes no sense at all. They don’t prevent incorporation. They don’t prevent deductions of expenses or reinvestment in the business – it’s about not letting people use income sprinkling or splitting for the sole purposes of reducing their taxes. Not that it’s stopped the narratives that this hurts doctors or struggling small businesses.

And this is a salient point – in Ontario, the provincial government encouraged this kind of incorporation rather than increase what they’re paying doctors, so you can see why they’re upset that these tools are being taken away from them. Nevertheless, it also largely proves that their arguments are fairly disingenuous, especially when they insist that “it’s not about the money.” But with none of their other arguments actually panning out, it seems to be that’s exactly what it is, and it’s fine if they come out and just say it. But to put on this song and dance about how the changes are “sexist” and that it somehow disproves Trudeau’s feminism, and ignoring the stated purpose of the changes with regards to tax fairness, makes the excuses start to ring fairly hollow.

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Roundup: Fun with populist proposals

As the new United Conservative Party in Alberta starts to take shape, some familiar populist tropes have been tossed around, which the leadership candidates – Brian Jean especially – don’t seem to actually think through before proposing it. Colby Cosh, on the other hand, did think through some of those proposals and the problems that they would cause, particularly when it comes to thinks like local referendums on photo radar (which I will remind you is ridiculous – if you don’t want to get a ticket, then don’t speed. It’s your own damn fault if you get one), but the big one is promised recall legislation. People keep bringing this particular idea up time and again, enamoured with American examples thereof, without actually thinking through the consequences of how it would work in our particular system, especially when there are more than two parties on the ballot, making thresholds an important consideration. In BC, the one province where recall legislation exists, it’s set at 40 percent of eligible voters, making it high enough to never actually be used, but the Wildrose had previously proposed a twenty percent threshold, which would set up a constant flow of recall initiatives, at which point it becomes comical. Suffice to say, populism is not democracy, and people who treat them as interchangeable are asking for trouble.

Meanwhile, as could be expected, old Wildrose holdouts are looking to revive their now moribund party in one form or another, likely with a new name but the same policies and party constitution, given that they resolutely remain opposed to uniting. At the same time, former PC operatives and the provinces’ hipster centrists, the Alberta Party, are holding “Alberta Together” meetings, to apparently try and solidify the centrist vote in the province, for what it’s worth.

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Roundup: Taking it to American media

This wailing and gnashing of teeth going on about whether or not the Conservatives may have damaged NAFTA renegotiations by going to the American media to bellyache about the Omar Khadr settlement is kind of tiresome, but I have to wonder if some of the angst or even analysis on this isn’t misplaced. While sure, there are points to be made about how going there is a bit of hypocrisy going on, where Andrew Scheer insists that it’s totally different for the Conservatives to go down about Khadr while at the same time saying it was “treasonous” for Thomas Mulcair to go to Washington to decry pipelines doesn’t pass the credibility test, I also don’t think that Scheer can credibly claim that If the Khadr payment hurts NAFTA that it’s Trudeau’s fault because it comes off as petulant.

Roland Paris gave some additional thoughts here:

There was an additional comment (that I can’t find to cite) that what’s more suspicious is the fact that the Conservatives had to go to the States to drum up outrage over Khadr because they weren’t getting much traction on it in Canada, as they were already preaching to the converted. I think that’s a fairly trenchant observation, and I have to wonder if it’s also because they chose particular American outlets that won’t offer pushback to their points that are factually wrong, which they wouldn’t get in Canada. Certainly Rosemary Barton wouldn’t abet the same kind of disingenuous commentary that Michelle Rempel pushed, and I think that’s also part of what we should take away from the exercise, beyond the fact that this performative outrage could backfire and cause problems with NAFTA in the age of the Uncertainty Engine taking more cues from Fox & Friends than he does with his officials.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells sees little trouble for Liberals in the polls post-Khadr settlement, so it seems like there’s little backlash (as those who were against Khadr seem unlikely to change their votes). Kady O’Malley meanwhile wonders if dragging the Americans into the Khadr file isn’t going too far.

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Roundup: Promised term-limits?

In yesterday’s Hill Times, the question of promised term-limits for Harper appointees in the Senate was discussed, with a variety of responses in return. Some confirmed that they had agreed to an eight-year limit and would try to hew to it, while others said that it was some great myth that they agreed to such a limit when they were appointed, and expressed bafflement as to where the media got such an idea. (Hint: A bunch of senators said that they agreed to it, including Senators Wallin and Duffy). And while some of those senators noted that things changed, and that it wasn’t a realistic promise to keep if it wasn’t applied evenly, I would also add that it would have been an unconstitutional promise (if indeed they had made it).

While there is some fairly clichéd grumbling about how terrible it is that some senators are appointed for thirty-some year terms, the concept of term limits in the Senate is generally a bad one for a number of reasons. First of all, most terms that have been bandied about are too short to be effective. The Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament, given that we have a fairly low rate of incumbency and a high rate of turnover in the House of Commons. Eight year terms are not only too low for much in the way of memory (twelve being better), the bigger problem with eight-year terms is that it would allow a prime minister with two majority mandates to completely turn over the composition of the Chamber, which is a Very Bad Thing when much of the raison d’être of the Senate is to be a check on a majority PM.

The other, bigger point, about having a Senate where they are appointed to age 75 and are difficult to remove is that the tenure allows for institutional independence. If you have term limits – especially shorter ones – it means that you stand a greater likelihood that senators start trying to curry favour with the government toward the end of their term so that they can get some kind of post-senatorial appointment, whether it’s a diplomatic posting or heading a tribunal. By ensuring that they stay until the mandatory retirement age, it means that they aren’t going to be trying to leverage their position for post-senatorial employment because they will beyond the age by which any federally appointed positions will have them. That’s an important consideration that often gets overlooked.

While this debate around whether these senators did or didn’t agree to such a term limit, there is no enforcement mechanism, and as stated earlier, it was an unconstitutional promise so it should be considered moot. As to the point as about senators with very long tenures, that remains something that the government that did the appointing can be held to account for (and indeed should be) if they consistently appoint young senators.

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Roundup: A Northern SCC justice?

The government announced yesterday that they have begun the process for searching for the next Supreme Court of Canada justice, which it should be noted is almost record-breaking in how fast they got this particular process started, as normally it takes them six months to a year to get a process even started, by which time the vacancy has happened and terms need to be extended (which isn’t possible in this case). And while this is notable in and of itself, there was something else notable – that they are explicitly looking for a justice from either the West or the North.

Why this is important is because it seems to demonstrate that they learned their lesson from the previous SCC appointment process, when they toyed with finding a justice who was not from Atlantic Canada despite it being a traditionally Atlantic Canadian seat that was vacant, and there was some pretty big uproar which they tried to pooh-pooh with talking points about how some of those federalist notions were perhaps a bit archaic and they were trying to find a bilingual justice (which was difficult for that region, even more so if they were trying to find someone Indigenous or a person of colour). That will be less of a problem in the West, but the fact that they also mentioned the North is a bit curious.

As it stands, some territorial cases, particularly at the appeal level, are heard in courts in provinces like BC or sometimes Ontario, because there simply aren’t enough judges and infrastructure in place to do the job up North. And while it’s not necessary that one be a judge to get a Supreme Court nomination (they must be a member of the bar, but can come from private practice or even a law school), it is a bit peculiar that they have expanded their search in such a way. It is the first time that such a consideration has been made, which is no doubt part of this government’s constant attempts to pat themselves on the back, and their language about the “custom of regional representation” still sounds a bit like they’re making it out to be less of an important deal than it is, which is a problem because the principles of federalism are a pretty big deal given how this country works. I would say that it also raises the possibility of raising hackles in the West because it could open them up to accusations that they’re depriving the West of representation on the Court (the West typically has two seats, one of which is currently held by Justice Brown from Alberta, so no, Alberta has no room to raise a fuss), but one could imagine that BC would very well make an issue of it if they felt like it. Granted, if they do find someone from the North, it could provide some greater perspective on the Court – or it could simply be yet another reason for back-patting. We’ll find out in a few months’ time when the decision is made. (And for the record, the plan is to name the new Chief Justice after the vacancy is filled).

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