Roundup: Unleashing the two-year markers

With it being the two-year mark since the 2015 election, we’re going to start seeing a wave of thinkpieces and columns over the next few days (I suspect there will be a glut of weekend columns of dubious quality on the topic), but Paul Wells got things off to a good start yesterday with his piece on the matter. And he makes some pretty good points about how the complaints that this government hasn’t done anything are off the mark, because I do believe there are a number of things that we forget with our short attention spans, but there are also things that we don’t see obvious signs of, where the government has reformed a lot of the processes by which things get done – and this is a particularly big issue when it comes to trying to move the various Indigenous files forward. While it looks like there has been halting progress, people ignore that many of the problems are capacity-related, so if the government is moving to address those fundamental issues, it leads to better outcomes later than simply throwing money at problems only to make them worse in the long run – which happens all too often.

But Wells also acknowledges the bad, and just like with any government, there’s a lot of that too – the appointments process is a notable example, and Wells points to the bottleneck in the PMO, which goes along with the glut of rookie ministers (unavoidable with so few experienced MPs in caucus), and the problem with messaging. As I wrote about earlier this week, there is a real problem with the way this government shovels pabulum at everyone, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than under the previous government, when you were treated to non sequiturs rather than vague answers that resembled the topics you were asking about. And it’s this inability to have forthright communications that created much of this tax mess as well (but I will also lay some blame on bad and lazy reporting that was too quick to lean on opposition talking points as examples of accountability rather than reaching out to experts and then using that to push back against the tidal wave of misinformation that came out). And most especially the fact that this government was unwilling to actually fight back against the misinformation is why this mess of their own making has been compounded even more so.

“But it’s hard to be entirely saddened by Trudeau’s current discomfort, which if nothing else might shake his team out of the towering sanctimony that characterizes too much of its action and rhetoric,” Wells writes, and I fully agree. In fact, it’s the moments in the past couple of weeks where Trudeau and his ministers have dropped their pabulum-like talking points and been punchier and more authentic in their fighting back against their attackers that I’ve seen a spike in public responses to my own reporting of those instances. Hopefully they’re seeing that too, and it’ll prompt them to take more risks and to stop being so gods damned scripted. But this is also politics in 2017, and we’ve killed off spontaneity or the ability to debate, so I fear that my hopes for honest communications are doomed.

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QP: Having confidence in the Ethics Commissioner

While Bill Morneau was off in New Brunswick to talk tax changes, Justin Trudeau was present for the first time this week, so it was guaranteed to be a gong show. After a moment of silence, Andrew Scheer, led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting that Morneau still “controlled” millions of dollars of his own wealth (which I’m not sure is an accurate portrayal of the situation). Trudeau reminded him that Morneau had followed the Ethics Commissioner’s advice, and had additionally just sent her a letter to see if there was anything he could do to go above and beyond her request. After another round of the same in French, Scheer read a portion of Morneau’s mandate letter and demanded to know when Trudeau knew that he was in a conflict of interest. Trudeau reiterated his previous response, calling it the kind of integrity that Canadians expect. Scheer accused Morneau of attacking small businesses while protecting his own wealth. Trudeau returned to questions of tax fairness, and when Scheer pressed, Trudeau produced a copy of the Liberal campaign platform and read that it was a promise made then that they kept. Guy Caron was up for the NDP, and he too pressed on Morneau’s shares, and Trudeau reiterated that Morneau worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Caron proffered the latest conspiracy theory that Morneau tabled Bill C-27 for the sole benefit of his old company, and Trudeau reiterated the Commissioner talking points. Nathan Cullen reiterated the claims in English, and Trudeau tripped up in referring to the Commissioner as the “Conflict of Ethics Commissioner,” to great uproar. Cullen tried again, and got the same answer — including the same slip-up.

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Roundup: The orgy of unforced errors

Word has gone out to Liberal MPs that there will be a mandatory caucus meeting first thing on Monday morning – a rarity given that mostly they wait until Wednesdays (especially as it makes it harder for those MPs who are from remote ridings to get there). The only thing that we know so far is that both Bill Morneau and the PM will be there, and the speculation is that it will outline the changes to their proposed tax changes based on consultations, but one can also assume that this is going to be about the ongoing self-harm that the government has been inflicting on itself over the various tax stories.

And what self-harm it’s been. On Friday, it was revealed that Bill Morneau forgot to declare that he also has interest in a company that owns a villa in France, and you can bet that the Conservatives took to this like a pack of dogs to fresh meat. This after the way that they refused to punch back against the gross distortions being promulgated about the proposed changes to the rules around Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations (CPCCs), or the refusal to provide real clarification around the CRA “folio” on certain employee discounts, preferring in each case to mouth the pabulum about fairness for the middle class. (Cute fact: the CRA “folio” has been up for months, was briefly discussed in the Commons finance committee last month, but only turned into a major crisis after a piece in the Globe and Mail. Because that’s now the Opposition Research Bureau, and it’s where the Conservatives take their daily outrage marching orders from, too lazy or incompetent to do their own research anymore).

And then there’s the added outrage over the fact that the government spent $221,000 on the cover of this year’s federal budget. Oh, how terrible and outrageous, and look at how plain the cover of Paul Martin’s budgets were, and then the Conservative chorus chimes in and makes these snide remarks about comparing the spending priorities between the two governments – completely ignoring the fact that they chose instead to spend even more thousands of dollars staging photo ops off of Parliament Hill to make announcements or give speeches where the Liberals will do it in the House of Commons, where they should be. Lindsay Tedds, mind you, offered up a sort of defence for why the Liberals may have chosen to go with this particular route on a budget design, which those in the throes of a paroxysm of cheap outrage, remain blinkered about.

So I guess we’ll see what emerges from that caucus meeting. Will they emerge with some better means of communicating their plans that won’t just involve more pat phrases about the middle class, and would maybe let them engage in some actual, authentic conversations that will push back against some of the nonsense being thrown around? Or will Trudeau lay down the law on his restless backbench and double down on the talking points that blandly say nothing at all, while they continue to let the Conservatives set the narrative using their own particular brand of spin, misdirection, and distortion? I guess we’ll have to see.

Meanwhile, here’s Colby Cosh raining down hellfire on that $210,000 budget cover, Chantal Hébert on the fire that Bill Morneau is taking, Andrew MacDougall on the Liberal’s inability to communicate their changes, and Paul Wells sees the continued litany of unforced errors as putting the government in danger of alienating the middle class that it so vocally venerates.

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Roundup: No, the Senate can’t fire Lynn Beyak

After another week of sustained outrage about Senator Lynn Beyak, with mounting calls for her resignation, and the exasperated commentary of those Indigenous groups that have tried to educate her as to the reality of the situation that Beyak has seen fit to comment upon, we’ve also started to see articles speculating on ways that the Senate can be rid of her. Those suggestions would be a grievous mistake.

We can all agree that what Beyak has said is odious in the extreme. But the performative outrage that she should be expelled from the Senate does cross a line because as much as we all disagree with Beyak, she hasn’t broken any laws or violated any ethics rules. She may have views that are on their face racist (though she probably doesn’t see them that way – the Conservative senators that I’ve spoken to pretty much consider her a clueless Pollyanna figure who nevertheless has deeply held Christian beliefs that inform her particularly selective world view), but those views are neither illegal nor contrary to the rules of the Senate. And we should be wary of trying to regulate Senators’ speech, because that is a gross violation of parliamentary privilege. We also can’t ignore that Beyak gives voice to an ignorant segment of the population, and when she raises these views publicly, she has given rise to a debate that such a segment of the population isn’t usually exposed to. Simply demanding her removal for it is hugely problematic for all manner of reasons.

Now, the Conservative caucus has taken the steps to minimize her role as much as possible – she is off all committees, and thus marginalized from having any position of influence. Why she remains in caucus is likely because they want to maintain their plurality in the chamber for as long as possible, and with ten current vacancies (and a couple more pending), that will likely change in the coming weeks, but for now, they are looking to maintain their numbers, and Beyak’s remaining in caucus does that for them, however they’ve sidelined her. And once the Independent Senators Group forms the plurality, the Conservatives’ impetus to keep her may change, but they may also hope that she can be redeemed, as it were, with more education (and perhaps a dose of humility). Maybe. Or, this could be an early sign of trying to phase her out, where there can still be some modicum of caucus control over her actions rather than simply turning her loose, which might actually embolden her (because then she’ll be a martyr for the cause). But let’s hope that this is the Senate’s version of phasing her out.

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Roundup: No more gimmicky rules

In her latest installment of her occasional “Dear Process Nerd” column series, Kady O’Malley takes on the subject of heckling, and offers a sympathetic answer about the frustration of MPs who can’t get a word in edgewise given the way in which debates and QP are structured to all but discourage actual debate. And she’s right – that is a very serious problem that we should address. The problem? The solutions that she offered were not solutions.

As is so often the case with people who are looking to reform the system to improve the obvious deficiencies, the instinct is always to implement some new gimmick, and my learned friend is no different in this regard. In this case, O’Malley notes that we should give MPs more time to meaningfully engage with legislation (go on…) but decides that the answer lies in rejigging the daily schedule for un-structured, open-interaction with things like quizzing specific ministers on subjects or Urgent Questions.

And this is the part where I heave a great sigh, because my learned friend as completely missed the mark.

When you identify a problem, you shouldn’t go looking for a new gimmick to try and counterbalance it – you should go looking for the source of the problem and solve it there. In this case, it’s the way in which we started regulating speaking times in Canada so that when we imposed maximum speaking times, we incentivised MPs to use up that whole time. That meant speeches that went up to 40 minutes, then twenty, and the ten minutes allotted for questions and comments wound up being just as rote and scripted more often than not because MPs no longer know how to debate. So why not just tackle that problem instead? Restore the old rules – abolish speaking times and speaking lists, have the Speaker gauge how long MPs should have to speak to a bill or motion based on the number of MPs who want to speak to it, and allow for interruptions for questions in a free-flowing manner, and above all, ban scripts so that MPs will be engaged in the subject matter, talking for probably eight to ten minutes, ensure that there is free-flowing debate throughout, and most of all, it eliminates the impetus to read speeches into the record. Just tacking on new rules and gimmicks has made the situation worse over the years. Strip that away. Get us back to the fundamentals. That will help bring about actual change.

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Roundup: Neglecting a vital institution

Of the things that vex me about our current government, their tacit endorsement of republican sentiment in this country is high on my list. The fact that they have allowed the Conservatives to take up and politicise the monarchist space in the Canadian landscape is shameful, and the fact that they have allowed the position of Canadian Secretary to the Queen to lapse is just one more sign of this particular antipathy. For all that he professes his affection for Her Majesty, Justin Trudeau seems to have a pretty difficult time reflecting that in his government’s particular decisions, and we will pay the price for it. That the work of arranging royal tours and being the link to Buckingham Palace is being left to the bureaucrats in Canadian Heritage is not a good thing. Everything I have heard about the job they do is not only that they are plagued with incompetence when it comes to the actual work of dealing with the Canadian Monarchy, but the tacit acknowledgement of my sources that those very bureaucrats charged with the responsibility are themselves republicans is hugely problematic. That they are the ones offering advice to the government is a very big problem. And that Trudeau appears to be neglecting this very important relationship is worrying. I know that there are monarchist Liberals in the ranks, and I hope very much that they can start to raise a fuss about this, because it’s a very worrying road that we are now on, and this kind of neglect can do lasting damage to our most fundamental institution, which we should all be very concerned about.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had an exit interview with Governor General David Johnston, and brought up the issue of debating abolishing the monarchy. Johnston, bless him, pointed out that the countries that most satisfy the needs of their people tend to be constitutional monarchies, so we’ve got that going for us.

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Roundup: Time allocation’s a-coming

Getting people worked up over the weekend was the revelation that Government House Leader Barish Chagger had sent a letter to her opposition counterparts noting that she planned to use time allocation a little more often this fall, in order to help get the government’s agenda through (with the note that things were taking longer in the Senate as a consequence of some of the changes there). And immediately, a number of pundits got upset with the whole notion, because Trudeau was supposed to be different, and time allocation is a great evil that’s used to “clamp down” on debate, and so on.

Let me be the first to remind you that in and of itself, time allocation isn’t all that bad if used responsibly. Part of why it became a big issue in the last election was because the Conservatives – and most especially then-Government House Leader Peter Van Loan – used it for everything under the sun, because they were inept at House management, and they had so abused things like omnibus legislation that the whole legislative process itself had largely broken down, hence why it became necessary to schedule by means of time allocation. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t responsible, but it got done.

Part of our problem is that all parties in this country have lost our ability to manage our debates. One of the most pressing examples is with Second Reading debate, where it’s supposed to be about the general principle of a bill – is it a good idea or not – and that’s it. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon, but no. Instead, we have to speechify into the record, and for some reason insist that on routine bills, take days for “is this a good idea or not” debate. More time should be spent at committee, but that’s often where we have been clamping down even further, because apparently, we need more terrible, scripted speeches being written into the record that aren’t debate. The logical result of this broken system of debate is that time allocation becomes a more regular feature because we’re no longer actually debating, we’re speechifying. So if we don’t want to see the government resort to time allocation, then maybe we need to start thinking meaningfully about fixing our broken debate practices so that our debate actually have meaning again. But that may be too novel of a suggestion.

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Roundup: Media as government whip

The fact that a couple of Liberal backbenchers are expressing reservations about the government’s proposed tax changes to private corporations has journalists salivating about caucus divisions – again.

Never mind that we’ve seen several examples of MPs going against the government in this current parliament – sometimes en masse (like with the genetic privacy bill), and time after time, Justin Trudeau doesn’t rise to the bait, and yet We The Media continue to try to make an issue out of it. Never mind that backbenchers holding their own government to account is how things are supposed to work in a Westminster system, because that’s their job as MPs, the media tends to remain focused on this narrative that all MPs should be in lockstep with their leadership, especially when they form government. No. That’s not true at all. And yet, Power & Politics spent several blocks on this very notion, especially with the interview with MP Wayne Long (not that there was sufficient pushback against Long’s positions, especially because lower tax rates for self-incorporation are not supposed to be a reward for risk, nor did his assertions about these tax rates being responsible for the current economic growth make any logical sense). What was notable in the eyes of the producers was that a government MP was going against the grain, and that needs to be An Issue.

As for Bill Morneau, he seems to have finally clued in that his communications plan for these changes has been nothing short of an omnishambles and is promising better information out this fall as consultations wrap up, but it’s almost too late at this point, considering the loads of utter nonsense coming out from the business community and how much traction it’s getting.

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Roundup: No, you don’t need a protected nomination

Apparently at the Liberal caucus retreat last week, the subject of the nomination process for the next election came up, and of course, MPs have plenty to say. Not that they’re telling the media, and while this Hill Times piece ended up being pretty thin gruel, mostly retreading their story on the push for protected nominations from early in the summer, I will use it as a chance to re-up my previous piece in Maclean’s about why protected nominations are a very bad thing in our system of government.

I’m sure all MPs like to think that they have very busy and important work to do in Ottawa (and they do!) and that means that they really can’t spare the time and attention that an open nomination would mean, but open nominations are not only a way to engage with the grassroots at the riding level, they’re also an important way of holding the incumbents to account within the party ranks, rather than simply at the ballot box. This means that there are multiple levels of accountability, which is a good thing for democracy. And I get that they need to be careful to delineate their work as MP and as the local party candidate, and that there are an increasing number of rules to enforce the separation between the two, but if they’re doing a good job, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain a healthy membership base that will support them. In fact, I would be concerned if my local MP couldn’t maintain a healthy membership base in the riding association because that means that those grassroots members are not being engaged and that is a very big problem for democracy. In other words, don’t ignore your grassroots, and if you are as an MP, then that means you’re not doing your job.

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Roundup: A shuffle and a split

So, there was that relatively small cabinet shuffle yesterday, some of which was telegraphed in advance, some of which became the subject of wild speculation as Trudeau seemingly threw in a couple of red herrings for the pundits to go wildly chasing to no end (LeBlanc and Wilson-Raybould especially). In the end, the new faces are Seamus O’Regan at Veterans Affairs and Ginette Petitpas Taylor to Health, while Carla Qualtrough moves to Public Services and Procurement, Kent Hehr takes over sport and disabilities, and in the biggest move, Jane Philpott moves over to a split Indigenous Affairs portfolio, so that Carolyn Bennett now becomes minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Philpott becomes minister of Indigenous Services. While it’s hard to say that Hehr’s move is anything but a demotion, O’Regan’s move is being noted both for his close friendship with Justin Trudeau, as well as his move from rehab to the cabinet table, for what it’s worth. Also of note is the fact that new mandate letters will be forthcoming in the next few weeks, while there was a bit of panic when the old ones were re-issued with new names for the time being.

The real news is the fact that Bennett and Philpott’s joint mandate will be to ultimately dismantle Indigenous and Northern Affairs and to create two separate departments that will move the files toward greater self-governance and be a less paternalistic structure for Indigenous communities to deal with – especially since the current structure does not currently suit the North well for Inuit communities, or Métis. Complaints about the creaky bureaucracy hampering the Indigenous file are constant, and structural reform like this is probably the next logical step in moving those particular files forward, but there are already detractors moaning that this will just mean double the bureaucracy and double the obfuscation. Maybe. I’m also dismayed by commentary from the likes of Hayden King who dismiss what the government has done to date as being symbolism and process. Why that bugs me is because process is important. Democracy is process. Changing the fundamental ways in which things happen – i.e. process – is important can’t just be shrugged off because it doesn’t turn into an instant fix. These kinds of issues are systemic and stubborn, and sometimes changing process to get the wheels turning is actual progress, even if it takes a while to see the results. None of this happens overnight – indeed, dismantling INAC won’t either, and step one is yet another consultation process on what the end goals are going to look like so that they can make the split with those in mind. And no doubt, we’ll hear yet more naysayers, but these are changes that will take time to happen.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde is happy with the change as a next step to dismantling the Indian Act. Susan Delacourt sees Trudeau keeping his friends close in this shuffle, while Chantal Hébert notes that the Canada-US files remain untouched in the shuffle, which points to how Trudeau is targeted isolated problems while looking to stay the course with the NAFTA talks. Paul Wells looks at Jane Philpott as this government’s go-to fixer, while Aaron Wherry notes the two doctors now in charge of the Indigenous portfolios and what that may mean.

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