Roundup: The 21-hour tantrum

If there is a parliamentary equivalent to a toddler having a full-on meltdown and screaming and pounding the floors after not getting their way, then you pretty much have the setting for the 21-hours of votes that the Conservatives forced upon the House of Commons. Which isn’t to say that I don’t think there was value in the exercise – I think having MPs vote on line items in the Estimates is a very good thing given that the Estimates are at the very core of their purpose as MPs, and we should see more of this (in a more organized fashion that they can do in more manageable chunks, mind you). But this wasn’t the exercise that the Conservatives billed it as.

Scheer’s framing is completely disingenuous. These votes were not blocking their efforts, and had nothing to do with the Atwal Affair, or the attempt to get Daniel Jean hauled before a committee. That particular motion was proposed, debated, and voted down on Wednesday. Forcing individual votes on the Estimates was a tantrum in retaliation. It was not about transparency. And it was tactically stupid – there would be far more effective ways to go about grinding Parliament to a halt to get their way rather than this tactic because there was an end point to it (and one which would have been at some point on Saturday if they hadn’t decided to let everyone go home).

The other reason it was stupid is because they forced votes on line items, it allowed the Liberals to spend the whole time tweeting about the things that the Conservatives voted down, like money for police, or veterans, or what have you. They handed that narrative to the Liberals on a silver platter. (The NDP, incidentally, voted yea or nay, depending on the line item, rather than all against, looking like they actually took it seriously). And what did the Conservatives spend their time tweeting? Juvenile hashtags, attempts to shame the Liberals (“You have the power to stop these votes. Just get the PM to agree.”) And in the end, it was the Conservatives who blinked and called it off (but declared victory and that they “drew attention” to the issue, of course).

This all having been said, there are more shenanigans to be called out amidst this. There was a whole saga about whether or not PCO offered Andrew Scheer a briefing, which his office denied, and then suggestions that Scheer wouldn’t accept it because he wanted as much of it made public as possible (again, with more conflicting versions of how much they wanted to be public and how much in camera). But even with the demands for public briefings, it trips up the parliamentary notion that public servants aren’t called to committees – ministers are, because they’re responsible. (Deputy ministers can be called as the accounting officers of their departments, but the National Security Advisor is not a deputy minister). And with that in mind, why exactly would the government put a long-time civil servant up for the sole purpose of having the opposition humiliate him? Because we all know what happened to Dick Fadden when he was hauled before a committee to talk about his fears about Chinese infiltration, and it damaged our national security because MPs couldn’t help themselves but play politics over it. Nobody covered themselves in glory over this exercise, but this wasn’t some great exercise in preserving the opposition’s rights. This was a full-on temper tantrum, and the more attention we pay to it as though it were a serious exercise, the more we reward the behaviour.

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Roundup: On leaders, interim or “parliamentary”

In the wake of the Patrick Brown resignation, the Ontario PC caucus gathered behind closed doors to name Vic Fedeli as their “parliamentary leader,” a term that irks me to no end. Fedeli came out and called himself “party leader” rather than “interim” or “parliamentary,” clearly signalling that he wanted this to be permanent going into the election, but within hours, the party insisted that they would indeed hold a full leadership contest to be concluded by March 31st, where the party membership would vote on a leader (and yes, Fedeli will be running while still acting as the interim/“parliamentary” leader).

The adoption of the term “parliamentary leader” is recent, and as far as I know was only first used by the NDP to give a name to what Guy Caron is doing as Jagmeet Singh’s proxy inside the Commons while Singh refuses to get his own seat, and generally avoids being in Ottawa as much as possible. Caron is left to be the de facto leader, even going so far as to make key decisions around staffing in the leader’s office in Ottawa, which would seem to make him de jure leader as well and Singh to be some kind of figurehead, wandering the land. But why it’s offensive as a concept is because it attempts to normalize this notion that the leader isn’t in the parliamentary caucus – something that is an affront to our Westminster system. The Ontario PC party using this term both affirms the use of this term, and opens up the notion of a similar arrangement where a new leader could be chosen by the membership while not having a seat, further taking us down this road to debasing our system.

https://twitter.com/mikepmoffatt/status/956958255129006081

Mike Moffatt, meanwhile, has the right idea – all leaders should be considered “interim,” because they should be able to be removed at a moment’s notice by the caucus (given that the caucus should select the leader, and that the leader should live in fear of the caucus). What happens instead with electing leaders by the membership is that they feel they have a sense of “democratic legitimacy,” which they feel insulates them from accountability, and they wield their imagined authority over the caucus, meaning that it’s the caucus who has to fear the leader instead of the other way around – especially if the rules persist that the leader signs their nomination papers. That’s not the way our system was designed to function, and it’s caused great damage to our system, and it gets worse as time goes on, with each iteration trying to turn it more and more into a quasi-presidential primary. The way the Ontario PC party has had to deal with this Patrick Brown situation within the context of their bastardized rules (and fetishizing the 200,000 members signed up in their last leadership contest, the bulk of them by Brown and his team) is utterly debasing to Westminster parliaments. More than anything, the events of the past week should be an object lesson in why we should restore caucus selection, should anyone be listening.

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Roundup: Kellie Leitch’s long farewell

The news went around last night that former Conservative leadership candidate and now backbench denizen, Dr. Kellie Leitch, has decided that she won’t run again in 2019. She is not the first current Conservative facing a nomination challenge not to run again, and there has been a whisper campaign going around that the leader’s office is organizing this push for contested nominations, leading to at least one other MP opting not to run (and in that case, there were some fairly large questions looming around why an Ontario staffer was choosing to contest the nomination of an Alberta riding that he didn’t live in). Despite this, the writing was on the wall, and Leitch’s disastrous leadership campaign sealed her fate.

With this in mind, I have to say that I’m a little troubled by some of the characterisations in John Ivison’s piece about Letch’s decision. In particular, he describes how Leitch, a progressive Conservative (and I have heard this from a number of conservative operatives, many of whom are gay, who had nothing but high praise for the good doctor in the years before her leadership bid), had fallen “under the spell” of Nick Kouvalis, who apparently convinced her to tack alt-right if she wanted to win the leadership. Considering that Kouvalis was in and out of positions of authority in the campaign after his need to go to rehab partway through, I think this perhaps gives him a little too much credit for Leitch’s series of bad decisions. She saw something in the Trump victory and the lead up to it and thought that she would be able to tap into that, and miscalculated the differences in how it manifests between our two countries. At least she’s owning up to that and not giving more tears about how she was wrong to do it (like she did with the Barbaric Cultural Practices Tip Line). And it’s not like she didn’t have other blind spots, like the utter lack of EQ when it comes to dealing with people on a personal level (and I had one Conservative commentator refer to her on background as a “psychopath” that people would never warm up to, and lo, they did not).

The other thing that I will note that Leitch’s run did was reiterate for me just how broken our country’s leadership selection process has become. She never would have made the calculation if she didn’t think she could mobilise a voter base outside of the caucus, courting the ugly side of populism. Meanwhile, swaths of ostensible NDP and Green voters took out Conservative memberships in order to ensure that Leitch didn’t win, and while she didn’t get more than seven percent of the vote, the putative favourite of those temporary Conservatives, Michael Chong, didn’t do as well as Brad Trost (who is also facing a nomination challenge and may himself soon declare that he too won’t run again if the pattern holds). Taking out party memberships for the sole purpose of ensuring someone you don’t like doesn’t get in is nothing short of perverse in terms of the meaning of what those memberships are supposed to hold, and it demonstrates how the process is hopelessly broken. Leitch would never have become such a caricature under a proper caucus-driven leadership selection system.

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Roundup: Holding BC’s horses

The fact that the BC NDP and the provincial Green party has come to a “confidence agreement” has everyone buzzing about what could possibly happen in that province, and whether it spells the end of the BC Liberals’ long reign, and the obligation on the province’s Lieutenant Governor. But because most people – including most of the journalists covering this story – don’t have a clue about government formation in our Westminster system, let me offer a few pointers.

The first point is right now, this agreement changes nothing. Clark is still the premier and has not resigned. The LG can’t simply dismiss her because there is a potentially viable alternate government with an added extra seat in the wings. It doesn’t work that way. All that this changes is that if Clark tests the confidence of the legislature and loses, the LG has an added option to consider when it comes to whether or not to grant dissolution and a new election. While yes, there is this agreement, the LG will also have to consider the stability of an alternate government and you’ll forgive me if I treat the promise of a four-year agreement on the Green supporting supply and confidence votes to be dubious at best.

Why? Because this is politics. First of all, the difference in seats is so slight that once the Speaker is taken into consideration, there may not be an appreciable difference in stability. MLAs will have to have perfect voting attendance lest the government fall on bad math or the inability to come to some kind of “gentleman’s agreement” on paired votes when MLAs are forced to be absent. And let’s face it – the Greens will only abide by this agreement so long as it suits them, and this being politics, the thirst for more influence comes quickly. How long before they decide they don’t like the other items on the NDP agenda? Before they have a personality clash with the NDP leader (which the Green leader made a big deal about during the election campaign, despite their big smiles during their press conference yesterday). How long before the NDP tires of Green demands? The agreement is a political promise, and is easily broken for the sake of politics. The LG likely knows this and would be advised to take the “four year” promise with a shaker full of salt.

It’s also notable that the two parties didn’t enter into a coalition agreement, which is part of what makes stability a real issue. The Greens were unlikely to want to be in a genuine coalition because of the issue of needing to adhere to cabinet solidary (and secrecy). They probably feel that they can throw their weight around more when they can public threaten to hold their breath until their “partners” accede to their demands, and this is significant for the sake of stability, despite the protestations that they want to make this work as a test case for proportional representation (even though PR generally necessitates actual coalitions).

And let’s not forget that Christy Clark is a formidable retail politician, and what’s going to matter is how she sells defeat or a request for dissolution. The narrative she builds will matter in the end, and we can’t underestimate that.

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Roundup: Ontario’s “basic income” scheme a bit suspect

The province of Ontario decided that it was going ahead with a three-year pilot project around basic incomes in three municipalities around the province – Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay, each testing different circumstances and local conditions. But there are problems with the way this is all designed, which Kevin Milligan (who has been studying this issue) outlines:

In other words, this isn’t really basic income, which makes it all that much harder to actually evaluate its efficacy, and if it’s not displacing existing welfare or benefit programmes, then it’s not really recouping those costs which makes this hideously expensive. And that’s really been the biggest problem with basic income proposals – the cost. While the idea is that they would displace current benefit programmes, there is less money to be had in cutting the red tape and bureaucracy than one might think, and I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates’ idea of taxing robots to pay for basic income for the workers they displace isn’t really feasible either.

Oh, and then there are the political considerations.

With an election not too far off in this province, we’ve seen a few moves by this government to try and out-left the NDP in places, hoping to cobble together the same sort of winning voter base that they managed to in their last election, and which their federal counterparts similarly managed in 2015. While I get the merits of basic income, I remain dubious of its feasibility, especially when this pilot project appears to be so poorly designed. But then again, I’m not an economist.

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Roundup: A ham-fisted trap for the Senate

While Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” Senator Peter Harder continues his tour of sympathetic media (the latest being the CBC), crying about how the Conservatives are holding government legislation “hostage” and how he needs to have the rules of the Senate changed, he and his team have been doing everything they can to destroy what collegiality exists with the Senate through ham-fisted procedural moves of their own.

The bill in question is C-4, which is the stated repeal of anti-union bills passed by the Conservatives in the previous parliament, and naturally they would be putting up a fight, tooth-and-nail, to keep their old legislation. Not surprising, but also a doomed fight. The bill was on track to pass the Senate this week, when Harder’s deputy, Senator Bellemare, announced that they would be calling a vote on it before Thursday, claiming that they had the support of all senators to do so, when in fact they didn’t. Reminder: the bill was on track to pass, as the Conservatives had exhausted their abilities to delay it. By pulling this manoeuvre, Bellemare basically sabotaged the working relationship between the caucuses in order to maybe shave a day or two from the bill. Maybe. Rather than letting it go through, she (and by extension Harder) turn it into a fight over procedure and sour feelings. Why? So that they can turn around and whine some more to the media that the political caucuses in the Senate are not working with them and are being obstructionist, therefore “proving” that they need these proposed rule changes that Harder wants. Harder, meanwhile, gets to look like he’s the victim and just trying to be reasonable when he’s the one who hasn’t been negotiating with the other caucuses this whole time.

What gets me is just how obvious he’s being about it. Well, obvious to someone who knows what’s going on in the Senate, but most people don’t, and he’s keen to exploit the fact that the general public – and indeed most journalists – aren’t paying attention, and he can use that to his advantage. None of their actions make sense if they actually wanted a working relationship with other senators and to try and get those bills they’re suddenly so concerned with (despite the fact that they have done nothing so far to try and move them along), which makes it all the plainer to see that this latest effort has nothing to do with trying to get bills passed in the Senate, and more to do with changing the rules in order to advantage his position.

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Roundup: MPs shouldn’t become social convenors

Sometimes when former politicians opine on their former profession, it can be insightful, and sometimes inspiring, but sometimes it can be gobsmackingly terrible. Former Ontario MPP and cabinet minister John Milloy ventures into the latter category with a piece in Policy Options on the “future of work” when it comes to parliamentarians. After Milloy correctly asserts that most parliamentarians don’t know their own job descriptions and that leaves them vulnerable to the machinations of unelected political staff, he veers off about how nobody trusts politicians anyway so their actual roles are becoming obsolete and hey, government is too slow to deal with policy in the modern world, so let’s turn our parliamentarians into social convenors.

No, seriously.

Apparently, the real drivers of change and action are service clubs, community groups and church organizations, so what parliamentarians should be doing is trying to bring those groups together to do stuff because they’re not community leaders anymore, so hey, they can be referees or coaches instead!

Head. Desk.

One would think that someone who used to be in elected politics like Milloy was would understand that the whole point of grassroots riding associations is to gather those kinds of voices around policy concerns, where they could help develop those into concrete proposals to bring to the party, or to communicate their concerns to the caucus (whether or not theirs is the elected MP in the riding). A properly run riding association has the hallmarks of service clubs or community groups because they provide both the social aspect around shared values, and work toward the care and feeding of political parties from the ground-up, the way that they’re supposed to. This is the kind of thing that we need to be encouraging if we want a properly functioning political system in this country. Instead, Milloy would see us let that atrophy and let outsiders shout from the side lines while the political staffers continue to consolidate power in the leaders’ offices. No, that’s not how politics are supposed to work. We can’t keep washing out hands of this and dismissing political organizations. Joining parties and getting involved is the way to make change happen, and as for MPs, we can’t just let this trend of self-made obsolesce go unchallenged. The “future of work” shouldn’t be irrelevance – it should be re-engaging with the system and actually doing their jobs. And shame on Milloy for abandoning his former profession to the wolves.

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Roundup: Carrying Russia’s water

The big story that had a number of people salivating yesterday was the screaming headline in the Globe and Mail that Chrystia Freeland knew her grandfather was the editor of a Nazi newspaper, which Freeland’s own uncle had researched, and to whom Freeland had contributed assistance to. VICE printed their own version of the story, making it clear that Russian officials have been shopping this story around for a while – remember that Freeland is persona non grata in Russia and target of sanctions – and added a tonne of context to the circumstances that Freeland’s grandfather would have found himself in, most of which was absent from the Globe piece because, well, it’s less sensational that way. And then cue some of the bellyaching that Freeland’s office wasn’t very forthcoming about some of this information when asked, the accusations that this somehow undermines her credibility, and whether or not this should be properly characterised as a smear when most of the facts are, in broad strokes, true (though again, context mitigates a lot of this).

The Russian connection, however, is what is of most concern to observers. Professor Stephen Saideman for one is cranky that the Globe very much seems to be compromising its editorial standards and is now carrying Russia’s water for the sensationalism and the sake of clicks. Terry Glavin is even more outraged because of the ways in which this plays into Russian hands, and any belief that we’re immune to the kinds of machinations they’ve exhibited in destabilizing the American electoral process (and now administration) and what they’re up to with far-right parties in Europe should be cause for concern. And to that end, Scott Gilmore says that we can’t expect to be immune from these kinds of Russian attacks. So should we be concerned? By all appearances, yes. And maybe we should remember that context is important to stories, and not the sensationalism, because that’s where the populist outrage starts to build, causing us bigger headaches in the long run.

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Roundup: Worst instincts for second-choice votes

As the Trumpocalypse serves up another “totally not just Muslims” travel ban south of the border, immigration references in the Conservative leadership race are certainly starting to pick up steam. Maxime Bernier started dropping not-so-coded references to “radical proponents of multiculturalism” who want to “forcibly change” the cultural character of the country (no, seriously), while Kellie Leitch offers up some of the questions her “values test” would include. Because you know, it’s totally not like people aren’t going to lie about the obvious answers or anything. Meanwhile, Deepak Obhrai says that statements like Leitch’s is creating an environment that could get immigrants killed, in case you worried that things aren’t getting dramatic. Oh, and to top it off, Andrew Scheer has a “survey” about terrorism that he wants people to weigh in on, and it’s about as well thought-out as you can expect.

https://twitter.com/maximebernier/status/838578590954446848

While John Ibbitson writes about how the Conservative leadership candidates’ anti-immigrant rhetoric is a path to oblivion for the party, I would also add this Twitter thread from Emmett Macfarlane, which offers up a reminder about how our immigration system in this country actually works, because facts should matter in these kinds of debates.

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Roundup: The phantom lobbying menace

You can already hear the grumblings over social media over the headline: “As senators become more independent, meetings with lobbyists hoping to take advantage tripled in 2016.” And immediately most people go “Ooh, lobbyists are bad, so this sounds like a terrible thing.” It’s not actually true, but it’s something we’re probably going to have to unpack a little better rather than cause some mass panic (once again) about how the newly “empowered” Senate is going to be the death knell for democracy in this country, or some other such nonsense.

For starters, not all lobbying is bad. With strict rules in this country around reporting and gifts, this isn’t like the free-for-all that we’ve seen in places like Washington, where lobbyists were meeting with Congressmen in the steam room of the Capitol Hill gym, or taking them on private plane rides and giving them holidays, or showing up on the floor of the House to watch them cast votes, all while funnelling money into their re-election campaigns. While I believe they tightened some of those rules down south, we simply don’t have that kind of lobbying culture here in Canada, so get that out of your minds first of all. Secondly, Senators in Canada don’t have re-election campaigns to finance, so the influence that lobbyists can try to gain with financial incentives of one variety or another are also non-existent here, so once again, don’t try to map an Americanism onto the process here. Third, lobbying is not all corporate influence. A lot of lobbyists represent charities or non-profits, so best to keep that in mind when you see the numbers grouped together.

Meanwhile, as for what they hope to achieve, well, remember that despite the newfound “independence” of the Senate, its powers are still fairly limited. Those hoping to use this newfound power to amend more bills or delay others will find that when it comes to any amendments, they would still need to be accepted by the House of Commons, and there has been very little acceptance so far of most amendments sent back by the Senate unless it’s a glaring error. And as for delays, if it’s a government bill there are tools like time allocation and closure to force them through the system. Just because Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” – Senator Peter Harder hasn’t yet availed himself of those tools doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. So really, your mileage with how effective lobbying efforts will be will certainly vary.

The uptick in lobbying is not unexpected now that the usual central channels for information flow have been disrupted. That’s to be expected, so this increase is hardly nefarious. I’m more concerned with cabinet ministers lobbying individual senators than I am actual lobbyists, to be honest, since those meetings are less open and transparent, and they have a lot more power to grant political favours. So really, let’s stay calm about this headline, but keep an eye on things nevertheless. Trudeau’s plans for a “more independent” Senate are certainly proving the rule around unintended consequences.

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