Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Exit O’Leary

So the big news, in case you missed it, was that Kevin O’Leary dropped out of the Conservative leadership race hours before the final debate, and endorsed Maxime Bernier (never mind that Berier just weeks ago referred to him as a “loser”). And that they came to a late-night agreement, but O’Leary’s team still sent out fundraising pleas the next morning, hours before the announcement. Oh, and the ballots have already been mailed out with O’Leary’s name on them (and any votes he gets will just fall off and second choices will be counted instead, given that this is a ranked ballot). O’Leary cites winnability, and the fact that he can’t win Quebec (just like everyone has been saying the whole time), so that’s why he’s going to Bernier (who, incidentally, may also not be able to win more than his particular corner of Quebec given his ideological hostility to much of what they seem to hold dear).

In the wake of the departure, here is some reaction from O’Leary’s campaign manager, Michael Chong, CBC’s poll analyst Éric Grenier, and Paul Wells delivers a signature thumping that you really need to read.

As for that debate, or “debate” as it should more properly be known (as with any of them held in this leadership contest), it was a weird mix of pointed attacks on perceived rivals, along with sucking up to others to try and win second-place support on those ranked ballots, because they very well know that it could be their path to victory. Some of the pointed attacks were expected – toward Kellie Leitch for fostering the image that the party is intolerant to the immigrants in suburban ridings that they rely on for electoral victory, and toward perceived front-runner Maxime Bernier. The one that was most surprising – and galling, to be frank – was Erin O’Toole going after Andrew Scheer because he became Speaker in 2011 and was apparently too busy “hosting functions at Kingsmere” than being “in the trenches” with the rest of the party (never mind that O’Toole wasn’t even an MP yet at the time).

The one thing that did irritate me the most, however, was the continued fetishism of private sector experience as somehow being a qualifier for political leadership, never mind that there is zero crossover between the two. With O’Leary now gone from the race, you had this mad scramble to try and claim this particular tin crown, and it was pretty sad. Rick Peterson was loudest – having never stood for office before – while Andrew Saxton, O’Toole and Bernier all tried to pile onto claiming their own experience. Government and business do not operate the same way. You cannot run a government like a business because there is no “bottom line.” Trying to claim some kind of credit for “making payroll” is meaningless noise in politics. The sooner you realise this, the sooner you can have a proper debate about issues.

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Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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Roundup: Chagger doubles down – again

Oh, Bardish Chagger. So very earnest in her desire to try and change the Standing Orders to try and prevent the excesses and abuses of the Conservative era that she’s ready to be her most ham-fisted in order to get it done. In an interview with The West Block this weekend, she said that she wasn’t going to hand over a veto to the Conservatives about these reforms, which means she’s doubling down about ensuring that any rule changes happen by consensus, and so I guess we’ll see the filibuster carry on in committee, and yet more egregious privilege debates and various other procedural shenanigans by the other opposition parties in the hopes that she backs down. So far, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

If I had my druthers, I would tell Chagger to stick to two simple points – omnibus bills, and prorogation. And specifically, the proposal to restore prorogation ceremonies, and take those two suggestions to the opposition parties, and just get them to agree to those. Those are the only two suggestions that are workable and doable (and prorogation ceremonies are in fact something that I recommend restoring in The Unbroken Machine), because that’s rolling back a change that happened in order to “streamline” things a couple of decades ago, and it’s a necessary tool for transparency and accountability. And omnibus bill restrictions are an obvious change that anyone can see as being necessary after the abuses of the 41st parliament.

But as I’ve stated before, on numerous occasions, any other suggestion that Chagger makes in her discussion paper is unnecessary and will cause more harm than good, because the underlying changes that need to happen are cultural, not structural. The problem is that it’s hard to sell MPs on this, especially when they keep using the phrases “modernize” and “21st century workplace” as though the terms meant something. And she keeps using them. Over. And over. And over. And it’s driven me to the point of complete distraction. But because Chagger is doubling down, I have the sinking feeling that it’s going to be yet another week of apocalyptic language and procedural gamesmanship and nothing will get done. Because that’s the state of things right now, and no amount of rule changes will actually fix that.

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Roundup: A few notes on a Friday QP

It was certainly the first time in almost nine years of covering the Hill that I saw the Prime Minister attend Friday QP. Granted, this was owing to the rather urgent circumstances of the missile strikes on Syria, and in all fairness to the PM, he could have just marched down to the Foyer, made his statement with a backdrop of a smattering of MPs who are present and not on House Duty, and then march back up to his office without taking questions, but he didn’t. While the plan had been for him to make the statement in the Commons, he instead incorporated it into QP so that the opposition could ask him questions about it, and he did answer what he could. And after QP, Harjit Sajjan used the Ministerial Statements portion of the Order Paper to reiterate the message, and allow opposition parties to make their replies, all in the House of Commons. This matters.

It’s also done in the backdrop of the debate on whether or not to eliminate Friday sittings, and of opposition MPs howling daily that it would be unconscionable for to eliminate the day because it meant that the government would be shielding itself from accountability, and people demand MPs to be in Ottawa, and this was all an attempt by the PM to get an extra day off, and so on. As far as apocalyptic talking points go, it’s terrible, but what gets me is that in the midst of all of these protestations about how important Friday is, the opposition ranks were mighty thin today, and not one other leader was present – not even Elizabeth May.

You would think that while they are wailing and gnashing their teeth about Friday sittings that the opposition could at least have the gumption to make a better show of attending on Fridays, to at least pretend that they care about how important Fridays are. But they didn’t.

And don’t get me wrong – I think they should keep Friday sittings. I’m even fine with it staying a half-day because I get that MPs have some distance to travel to get home to their ridings. And you can, theoretically, get plenty of work done on a half-day, especially if they’re abiding by proper Westminster debate formatting and not just speechifying into the void. And today proved that sometimes, circumstances intervene and it’s a good way to address the public while respecting the importance of Parliament. I’m just disappointed that the very MPs who keep protesting how important it is can’t be bothered to demonstrate it with actions instead of hollow words.

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Roundup: Earnest Scott Simms

As is becoming a daily occurrence, we have yet another voice weighing in on the Standing Orders debate, and this time, it’s the mover of the motion that’s causing so much Sturm und Drang in the House of Commons (and the Procedure and House Affairs committee) right now – Scott Simms. Simms, I believe quite earnestly, insists that we need to give reform a chance, and he lists all of the wonderful things he hopes to happen out of Bardish Chagger’s discussion paper, and I believe he’s earnest because he has recently co-edited a book on parliamentary reform with noted notoriously wrong-headed would-be reformers Michael Chong and Kennedy Stewart.

Of course, nothing in these proposals will fix what ails parliament, and will only create more problems than it solves. We’ve established this time and again, and I’ve written a book to this effect, but the problems are not structural. MPs, however, don’t necessarily see that because they’re trapped in a sick and dysfunctional parliamentary culture and looking around for fixes, they see some levers that look easy to pull, never mind that those levers will make things worse. Digging into the underlying cultural problems are harder to see and do, and that’s why MPs have been assiduously avoiding them, but we shouldn’t let them get away with it. Granted, it would be far more helpful if more members of the media could see that fact as well and not get lured by the shiny reform ideas that keep getting floated around, followed by the drama of the outrage, which is all too easy to get sucked into. Because who doesn’t love drama?

So with all due respect to Simms, no, the time for being open-minded about these reform ideas has passed. We’ve lurched from one bad reform idea to another for the past half century (century if you want to count the granddaddy of all disastrous reforms, which the Liberals promulgated in 1919 when they changed the leadership selection process) and things haven’t gotten any better. It’s time to take that hard look at where things are situated, and means slapping MPs’ hands away from those shiny, easy-looking levers. It’s time to have a meaningful re-engagement with the system, and nothing in these discussion paper ideas does that. In fact, it does the opposite.

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Roundup: May’s problematic proposals

Green Party leader Elizabeth May decided to weigh in on the Standing Orders debate yesterday with a proposal paper of her own, considering Government House Leader Bardish Chagger’s proposal to have been an earnest trial balloon that has now blown up in her face and in need of moving on. May’s didn’t object to some of Chagger’s proposals, but came up with a few of her own, some of which are of dubious merit.

To start off with, however, May lards her paper up with a bunch of constitutional canards, such as the fact that political parties don’t appear in the constitution. If you hear the sound of my head banging on the desk, it’s because May is privileging the written Constitution Act as opposed to the unwritten constitutional conventions which are just as valid and just as important to our system of government, and are in fact foundational because that’s how our system of Responsible Government is expressed, and parties are foundational to that system. Just because they don’t appear in writing doesn’t mean they’re absent from our constitutional framework – they are fundamental to it, and May (and the scholars she cites) are simply obtuse to not recognise that fact. May then insists that the Westminster system has been distorted by parties gaining power and with presidential leaders, but rather than actually diagnosing where the problem is – the bastardized way in which we conduct leadership contests – she instead retreats to her usual hobbyhorse of the electoral system, which would not in fact solve any of the problems she identifies.

But if you make it past her civically illiterate pap, she digs into the suggestions with the most notable one being that she wants more concentrated sittings – five-and-a-half days a week for three to four weeks at a stretch, then three to four weeks back in the riding, insisting that this is also better from an emission standpoint since MPs would be travelling less. But where her logic here falls apart is saying that given this would stress families more that making it more attractive for families to relocate to Ottawa might be a consideration – but unless the families go back-and-forth on the three-to-four week rotations, being even more disruptive to children’s schools – then there is simply falls apart on the face of it. She also proposes that staffers be given compensatory time off instead of overtime, which seems far more unfair to these staffers considering that the work doesn’t stop when MPs are back in their ridings, and you’re forcing people (many of them younger) to work even more than they already do with less time off as a bit cruel.

May also proposes that a UK-style Fixed-term Parliaments Act be adopted, which officially makes her wilfully blind to the problems that it’s causing to Westminster’s operations, and the fact that it reduces the ability to hold a government to account because it requires a two-thirds vote to call an early election beyond a non-confidence vote with a simple majority. I get that she wants this to force parties to come to different coalition arrangements, but when accountability suffers, that’s a huge problem. But as with most of her suggestions for “improvement,” May is more concerned with her own partisan intransigence than she is with actual Westminster democracy, which is why I find her entire paper to be of dubious merit.

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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: Sticking to vapid promises

Because I’m not ready to let go of this topic of the Liberals plans around the Standing Orders, Maclean’s had an interview with deputy House Leader Kevin Lamoureux about why the government is so keen on trying to make these changes. Lamoureux has two answers – that the rules should be modernized (with no explanation as to why), and that they made an election promise to do so. Oh, and some too-cute-by-half insistence that even if they changed Question Period that Trudeau would show up more than once a week, despite the fact that he promised in that same election that he wanted to be out on the road more than just being stuck in Ottawa. So yeah, that seems to indicate that he’s looking for an excuse to only be there one day a week.

As with electoral reform, the Liberals came out early on with this facile talking point about the need to “modernize.” There’s no justification as to why or no explanation as to what’s not working (just the rather pedestrian observation that it’s not – draw your own conclusion) and then doing some jazz hands and saying “modernize!”

And like with electoral reform, promising “modernization” without saying why, is kind of a stupid promise, and you know how I feel about stupid promises – they should be owned up to as being stupid before they are broken. In this case, I’m not sure if it was just the vapid need to promise to modernize everything, or if they think there’s a real issue that they want to solve – regardless of what it is, it’s obvious that anything they’ve proposed to date won’t actually solve the problems that they have because the problem is cultural in this place, and the way to solve it isn’t by changing the rules that they’re proposing to. Either way, they need to say “Stupid promise. Real life proved to be different than we imagined it was,” and abandon these plans in favour of maybe, just maybe, tackling the deeper cultural issues that are the real cause of dysfunction in our Parliament.

Meanwhile, I was on AM 770 in Calgary yesterday to talk about my Maclean’s op-ed on the fact that we don’t need to modernize the House of Commons, which you can listen to here.

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Roundup: What to do about Beyak?

The CBC caught up with Senator Lynn Beyak yesterday, and she essentially doubled down on her insistence that she’s said nothing wrong about residential schools, and then compounded the whole thing by insisting that she’s been “suffering with” these residential school survivors because she lives in the area with them and she once went on double dates with an Aboriginal fellow. The mind boggles.

So with this having been said, and Beyak insisting that she’s not going anywhere, people are starting to wonder what’s next (as they demand her resignation, if not from the Senate then at least the Aboriginal Peoples committee). Let’s deconstruct this a little first, shall we?

To start off with, as a member of the committee, Beyak is not really making decisions around Indigenous policy in this country, as some people are suggesting. The government – meaning Cabinet – still makes that policy, and the Senate and in particular the committee does their due diligence in holding them to account. They’re not actually making policy themselves. Add to that, Beyak is one vote out of fifteen (remember that committees in this current session are now oversized because that was how to add in new independent members without a prorogation to reset committee selection), so her vote is even more diluted than it would be in a regular parliamentary session. And given that her views are off-side with her own party’s, it’s not like she’s really going to be the swing-vote in any case. So let’s calm down about that. While the committee chair has suggested that Beyak step aside, it’s not really her call as to whether Beyak is a member or not – that’s up to caucus leadership (or in the case of the Independent Senators’ Group, they volunteered for committee assignments), and there’s nothing the Chair can do about it. But if the Conservative Senate leadership is aware that Beyak being on that committee is a problem, they can probably arrange to have her rotated off of it (if not right away, then certainly when the committees reset at the next prorogation).

Some people has suggested that Beyak be kicked out of Conservative caucus, but I’m less certain that that’s a good idea. For one, her being in caucus allows the Conservative leadership to maintain some level of control over her, and if she’s forced out, where is she going to go? The ISG, where she can look at Senator Murray Sinclair every organizing meeting?

As for the comparisons between Beyak and Senator Don Meredith – because people have been making them – it’s a specious comparison that needs to stop. He’s broken ethics rules (and possibly the law), whereas Beyak’s crime is wilful ignorance. That’s not actually illegal or against the ethics code, and no, you can’t expel her for it. What they can do, however, is maybe consider a policy of phasing her out – making it as unrewarding as possible for her to be there that she eventually leaves. It’s an inexact science, particularly for someone as clueless as Beyak, and this whole episode should serve as one more reminder as to why it’s important to take some care in choosing who to appoint, because they’ll be there for a long time with little recourse for removal (and Stephen Harper quite obviously was not taking care).

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