Roundup: Notley’s unconstitutional threats

In Alberta, Rachel Notley’s NDP government had a Throne Speech yesterday that promised all manner of action to try to pressure BC’s NDP government when it comes to the Trans Mountain pipeline problem. Notley, however, decided to take some of Jason Kenney’s bluster and make it her own, promising the ability to block oil shipments to BC that they need for their domestic use. The problem? The Trans Mountain pipeline is regulated by the National Energy Board, meaning it’s federal jurisdiction, and that neither province can do anything to block it or affect what it carries. She’s also echoing the comments that the federal government needs to lean harder on BC, never mind that the NEB has quasi-judicial authority on the issue, and the fact that all BC has done to date is announce a study, or that the federal government has repeated “This pipeline will get built.” It’s a bunch of chest-thumping and borrowed demagoguery that ignores the historical context of what Peter Lougheed threatened in the 1980s, and is rank hypocrisy in that they’re threatening unconstitutional action to combat BC’s threatened unconstitutional action. It’s time for everyone to grow up.

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Roundup: Gaming the system a second time

So the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s nomination committee has allowed Patrick Brown to run for the leadership contest, despite the fact that he was kicked out of caucus (which also rescinded his nomination as a candidate in his riding), which is going to go super well for everyone involved, be it Brown claiming that he’s been vindicated from the allegations (he hasn’t), or the other candidates who are trying (and failing) to come up with new policy on the fly as they try to distance themselves from Brown’s campaign platform. But what gets me are all of the pundits saying “It’s up for the party members to decide,” which should provide nobody any comfort at all, because the reason the party is in the mess it’s in is because Brown knew how to game the system in order to win the leadership the first time. He has an effective ground game, and can mobilise enough of his “rented” members, likely in more effective distributions (given that this is a weighted, ranked ballot) than other, more urban-centric candidates can. He played the system once, and has all the means necessary to do it again. Saying that it’ll be up to the membership to decide is an invitation to further chaos. This is no longer a political party. It’s an empty vessel waiting for the right charismatic person to lead it to victory, which is a sad indictment. Also, does nobody else see it as a red flag that Brown’s on-again-off-again girlfriend is 16 years his junior and used to be his intern? Dating the intern should be a red flag, should it not? Especially when one of his accusers is a former staffer.

Meanwhile, here’s David Reevely previews the party’s civil war, while Andrew Coyne imagines Brown’s pitch to members as his running as the “unity candidate” in a party split because of him.

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Roundup: The Hehr question

For the past few days, one of the same questions keeps being raised in light of everything that has gone on – with all of the resignations in light of sexual misconduct allegations, why is Kent Hehr still in caucus? I have to say that the policing of who is and is not in caucus by the pundit class is getting a bit crass, to say the least, the concern trolling over a lack of consistent practice is something that the commentariat should be trying to come to grips with, rather than exacerbating the situation with some blatant concern trolling.

Prior to this parliament, there was no process when it came to sexual harassment allegations against MPs. The process was explicitly that there was no process – MPs don’t fit under a workplace framework when dealing with one another, so the lack of process was to ensure that there was room for mediation between the parties involved, and things were dealt with quietly behind the scenes, so that there wouldn’t be partisan advantage taken of it. I can’t say how well it did or did not work, but things changed in 2014 with the Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti allegations. What changed was that Thomas Mulcair fully intended to make a partisan issue out of the allegation and had booked a press conference to denounce the MPs and Trudeau for not doing anything about the allegations that had been made directly to him. When Trudeau beat Mulcair to the punch and suspended the two MPs (who were later formally expelled), Mulcair had to instead shift tactics and accuse Trudeau of re-victimising the complainants, but those involved knew that Mulcair has readying his salvo and swift action needed to be taken. When the allegations about Darshan Kang surfaced (plus the allegation he offered to pay the complainant to keep it quiet), and were corroborated by those who had worked for him in provincial politics, Kang removed himself from caucus (and went on medical leave), but there’s been no indication that he was expelled by Trudeau.

When pressed about Hehr’s status, Trudeau noted yesterday that the party is trying to deal with things on a case-by-case basis, and there is a process in place now that didn’t exist before, and an investigation has been launched into Hehr’s activities. That Trudeau would try to respect the process put into place since the Andrews/Pacetti incident is likely a good thing, but this being politics, there is already partisan hay being made of this, with Erin O’Toole trying to paint this as Trudeau having changed his own rules. Because you know, why resist the urge to take partisan shots? And if Trudeau went around the process, you know that the question would be why he didn’t wait for the investigation – because damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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Roundup: Protected nominations and the suffocation of the grassroots

Oh, Liberals. You’ve really gone and done it again, haven’t you? All of your grand talk about respecting parliament, and now you’ve decided that you’re going to go and protect the nominations of your incumbent MPs, so long as they meet a set of criteria that, while better than nothing, is not all that onerous. Never mind that four years ago, it was all about how open nominations were about community leaders devoted to community service, but now? Now it’s about ensuring that your MPs simply have a big enough war chest and participate in a bare minimum of door knocking over the course of a year. You’d think that with this list of requirements, ensuring that there still remains an actual nomination process wouldn’t be too difficult – after all, if the excuse is that they’re so busy in Ottawa that they can’t be also running for their old jobs, then ensuring that they’re still doing the work that would be associated with a nomination process seems like a pointless self-inflicted black eye, no?

I’m not going to re-litigate this too much, but I wrote about why protected nominations are a Bad Thing in Maclean’s last year, but it really boils down to one basic concept – accountability. The biggest reason to ensure that there are open nominations is to ensure that a riding can hold their incumbent to account without needing to vote for another party to do so. Protecting nominations removes more power from the grassroots party members and enshrines it in the leader’s office, which is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. (And yes, Trudeau has centralized a hell of a lot of power, especially after pushing through the changes to the party’s constitution). And by imposing those thresholds to ensure that the nomination is protected, it creates incentive for the incumbent MP to treat that riding association like a personal re-election machine, rather than a body that holds that MP to account at the riding level.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Liberal problem. The Conservatives also set a fairly high bar to challenge incumbent nominations, some of which we’ve seen in recent weeks, but that’s been accompanied by rumblings that some of these challenges have been stickhandled out of the leader’s office, which is even more distressing for grassroots democracy. The erosion of grassroots democracy is a very real crisis in our political system, but most people don’t understand what these changes mean, more content to chide the Liberals for broken promises about open nominations than be alarmed at what the bigger picture result is. It’s a pretty serious problem, and it’s bigger than just a broken promise.

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Roundup: Hehr out of cabinet

In the hours that the drama around Patrick Brown was playing out, another accusation was levelled over Twitter, this time around Liberal cabinet minister Kent Hehr, which seems mostly to involve lewd suggestions he made to female staffers in private during his time as an MLA in Alberta. When news of that reached Davos, Justin Trudeau said he would follow-up and have an answer before they left the country. And just before the plane took off, we had our answer – Hehr had tendered his resignation from cabinet, and during his “leave of absence,” Kirsty Duncan would take over his responsibilities while an investigation was carried out. Hehr remains in caucus, no doubt pending the results of that investigation. Maclean’s spoke with Hehr’s accuser here.

Politically, it’s fraught for Trudeau given that both of his Calgary MPs – both of them veterans of the Alberta Liberal Party – have been taken down by allegations of sexual misconduct. And in a related story, the investigation promised into Kang’s actions has not contacted one of his accusers, however many months later, and that goes for both federal and provincial investigations.

Speaking of Brown, here’s a detailed look at how Wednesday night played out, and some further conversations with his accusers. One of Brown’s (former) deputy leaders called the incident a “hiccup,” and later had to apologize for it.

Meanwhile, Supriya Dwivedi talks about politics’ #metoo moment, and the fact that the Bro Code is breaking down, while Aaron Wherry talks about how #metoo has arrived on Parliament Hill. Chris Selley looks at the path ahead for the Ontario PC party in Brown’s demise, and it’s a messy path given the rules in the party’s constitution, with just four months to go before the election.

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Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

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QP: One last go at the PM

On what promises to be the final sitting day of 2017, all of the leaders were present, and duelling Christmas poems by Mark Strahl and Rodger Cuzner, things got underway. While some of Strahl’s lines raised eyebrows (particularly the line about Scheer’s virility), Cuzner’s annual poem didn’t disappoint.

Andrew Scheer led off, railing about the “devastating” small business tax changes. Justin Trudeau reminded him that small business taxes were being lowered, and restricting income sprinkling was about ensuring that people couldn’t take advantage of loopholes. Scheer insisted that the changes spelled doom, and Trudeau responded that the opposition had become so partisan that they treated a small business tax cut as a bad thing. Scheer listed off the supposed ways in which the government has apparently attacked taxpayers, but Trudeau insisted that they were doing everything to grow the middle class, and noted how many jobs had been created. Scheer pivoted mid-retort to decry Trudeau’s “erratic behaviour” on the trade file, to which Trudeau reminded him that they weren’t going to sign any deal, but only wanted good deals for Canada. Scheer was concerned that Trudeau was endangering the NAFTA talks, to which Trudeau reminded him that capitulation was not a trade strategy. Guy Caron was up next to bay about the nomination process for the new Ethics Commissioner, and Trudeau noted that they started engaging the opposition for criteria of this process last June, and if they didn’t have confidence, they should say so. Caron insisted that their dispute was with the process not the candidate, and that they couldn’t trust a process where the committee was dominated by cabinet staff. Trudeau responded with a defence of that process, with a slightly disappointed tone. Alexandre Boulerice was up next, and he railed that the Commissioner wouldn’t promise to carry on current investigations and insinuated that the government was trying to sweep everything under the rug. Trudeau insisted that the process was merit-based, and when Nathan Cullen got up to list the alleged ethical violations of the government, Trudeau responded with disappointment that the opposition was relying solely on personal attacks.

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Roundup: A new Chief Justice

The justice minister announced yesterday morning that the prime minister would be naming Justice Richard Wagner as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, thus both respecting the tradition of alternating between a Common Law and a Civil Law judge as the Chief, as well as picking an accomplished jurist who has 15 years left on the bench, ensuring that there is a long enough period of stability on the Court. Wagner is well respected in the Quebec courts, where he hailed from, and it is noted that he doesn’t really fit into the left-right divide – something that is not only indicative of our Canadian system, but is one of those things that people point to when they note how a Liberal PM can elevate a judge chosen by his Conservative predecessor.

A trip to the Maclean’s archives finds this piece by Paul Wells on the day that Wagner was named to the Supreme Court was also the day that Justin Trudeau threw his hat into the ring for Liberal leadership, and that both men had famous fathers in political circles. Tasha Kheiriddin notes the choice of Wagner is a safe one.

It’s also worth noting that Wagner also becomes Deputy Governor General with his elevation to Chief Justice, and he can grant royal assent to bills in the event that the GG herself is ill or absent; he opens Parliament before a Speaker is elected; and he will head the committee in charge of nominating people to the Order of Canada. The practice since 1939 also used to be that the Chief Justice would close a session of Parliament instead of the Governor General following some particular manoeuvring by Mackenzie King while the GG was out of town, until the government stopped with prorogation ceremonies. (If you ask me, they should restore the ceremonies, but with the GG doing them).

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QP: Trade, jets and jeers

The final Tuesday QP of the year, and all of the leaders were present — even past leader Thomas Mulcair was present, for a change. After each side offered statements of congratulations for their by-election wins, Andrew Scheer led off, mimi-lectern on desk, and he read some condemnation of the PM going to China and his willingness to allow foreign takeovers without security reviews. Trudeau chose instead to offer congratulations to the by-election winners, as well as everyone who put their names forward. Scheer offered his own breathy congratulations, then accused the PM of erratic behaviour and incompetence on the trade file. Trudeau insisted that they worked hard to get deal that “work good” for Canadians, and that things like environmental and labour rights be respected. Scheer sniped that the PM comes home empty handed, and then raised another instance of someone complaining about Kent Hehr’s comments. Trudeau said that the minister took the allegations seriously and apologized. Scheer then moved onto the fighter jet question, and the decision to purchase used interim jets. Trudeau said that the reality was that the military needed new jets years ago but the previous government didn’t deliver, but his government had launched an open process with interim jets to fill capacity gaps. Scheer noted the problems with those jets identified by the Australian Auditor General, and offered Trudeau an old minivan. Trudeau reiterated that the previous government botched their processes. Guy Caron was up next, and was concern trolling about the problems with getting new officers of parliament. Trudeau noted the open, transparent process, and that he had confidence in the nominees put forward. Caron insisted that the process was not transparent, and demanded the names on the selection committees and short lists. Trudeau said that the appointment processes take time, and have put in place processes that people could trust. Nathan Cullen repeated the same question with added sanctimony in English, and Trudeau reiterated that they would continue to consult with the opposition on appointments, and then after another round of the same, and Trudeau said that if they didn’t have confidence in the nominee they should just say so.

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Roundup: Embattled ministers sticking it out

With three cabinet ministers currently “embattled” (to various degrees), Aaron Wherry wondered about the drop-off in actual ministerial resignations, and found the comparison to the days of Brian Mulroney, who was far quicker to accept resignations than is customary these days. Mulroney came to regret this, mind you, but it can’t be denied that the demands for resignations have never left us, and in fact are pretty rote performance by this point. That the Conservatives made their demand for Bill Morneau’s resignation without any real damning evidence as to why it’s necessary has made it seem as unserious as it actually is, making it harder for them in the future to make a legitimate demand.

But with that having been said, I’m going to say that there’s something that Wherry has left out in his analysis, which is the way in which Cabinets are constructed is a different calculation now than it was in Mulroney’s day, and that matters. Back then, the dominant concern was federal construction, so while you had to ensure that you had enough ministers from certain regions, and some token diversity in terms of religious or cultural background, with a woman or two in the mix, it was easier to swap out white men for one another when it came to accepting resignations and replacing them. That’s not really the case right now. Trudeau’s pledge for a gender-balanced cabinet that is also regionally representative as well as diverse in terms of race and ethnicity means that there are far fewer options for replacing ministers when it comes time to either accepting resignations, or swapping them out for fresh blood. What that ends up doing is creating an incentive for a prime minister to stick by an “embattled” minister (though I’m not sure just how serious any of the allegations against any of the current ministers really is – the attacks against Morneau are largely baseless, while Lebouthillier has done her due diligence with regard to the AG’s report and has technically been correct in what she’s said regarding the disability tax credit; Hehr, meanwhile, has been chagrinned but I’m not sure there is a cardinal sin here in the grand scheme of things). Sure, there will be a few tough days in the media, but eventually, when there turns out to be nothing to what is being said, the storm passes. It passed with Harjit Sajjan and Maryam Monsef (who was given a promotion for sticking with the flaming bag of dog excrement that was the electoral reform file), and I’m pretty sure it’ll pass for the current three. Until Parliament itself is more diverse than it is now, the demands for a representative Cabinet means that there are fewer options available for a Prime Minister to accept a resignation. What it does mean, however, is that they need to get a bit better around communications and managing the issues that do come up, but also seems to be a recurring theme with this government.

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