Roundup: Constituent consultation

In another instance of MPs breaking ranks, Conservative MP Scott Reid bucked the party by opting to vote to send the marijuana legalization bill to committee on second reading. Reid notes that he has favoured legalization since 2000, and it also didn’t escape anyone’s notice that his riding is home to a major medical marijuana factory which is also looking to scale up for the recreational market.

Of course, Reid is putting this with conditions, which is that he wants amendments to the bill at committee, which includes raising the legal age to 21 (because that will totally help kill the black market), and allowing communities to maintain their own prohibitions (again, good luck with the black market). More interestingly is the fact that Reid is promising a “constituency referendum” on whether or not he should vote for the bill at third reading.

It’s this referendum that I have questions about, but Reid points out in his statement that he has done this thrice before, so I’m not sure by what method he did (phone poll? Online voting?) and it’s more indicative of the Reform Party era where this sort of thing was promised a lot, and then rapidly fell into disuse because it’s not easy to organize, especially on a consistent basis with the volume of legislation that can pass through the Commons in any given session. Nevertheless, it’s novel and likely riddled with problems, and I’m not sure I would want to see MPs doing it on a regular basis because part of why we elect them in the way we do is for their judgment in a representative democracy. But…it’s novel.

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Roundup: Senator Greene’s grievous error

The strange fascination with Senator Stephen Greene’s ouster from caucus has consumed far too much time and attention, and yet things keep cropping up that demand a response. Today it was his op-ed in the National Post describing what happened, and then he dropped this little gem at the end of his piece.

No. Greene is completely and utterly wrong.

The Senate may not be the confidence Chamber – that is rightfully the House of Commons – but that doesn’t mean that the Senate doesn’t play an accountability role because the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account. The Senate is part of Parliament. This is elementary civics for a Westminster democracy.

The way in which the Senate exercises its accountability role is different from the Commons, but it exists nevertheless. It’s not a copy of the Commons’ processes either, nor can it be redundant because composition matters. Sober second thought is actually a form of accountability that relies on checking government legislation from a less partisan lens that is removed from the grasping for votes that afflicts most MPs, for whom populist considerations can blind them to bad policy – something the Senate can call out by virtue of the fact that they’re not seeking re-election.

That institutional independence – not seeking re-election, tenured so that they can’t be easily removed by the government of the day, given job security until age 75 so that they’re not compromising themselves in seeking post-Senate employment – it all adds up to the ability to hold the government to account in a way that the House of Commons simply cannot do. That’s why the Senate has the unlimited veto power that it does – because sometimes a government with a majority will pass blatantly unconstitutional legislation because it’s politically popular to do so, but as we all know, populism is not democracy, and the Senate safeguards that principle. That is an accountability function.

That Greene is unable to make that distinction is a problem, and it’s especially a problem because he’s been leading the charge with the modernisation push in the Upper Chamber, and his is a vision that is looking to see partisan caucuses diminishing. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, the ability to have a coherent opposition in the Senate is a key Westminster feature and a guarantor off accountability, which simply cannot be done effectively if the Chamber is a collection of 105 loose fish. That the Senate is more vigorously examining and amending legislation now is not a bad thing, but we are probably at the peak of what we can or should be expecting in terms of activism without senators engaging in overreach. But to think that this isn’t accountability is simply ignorant.

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Roundup: The good and bad of new Senate rules

The Senate adopted a change to their rules this week, which changed the definition of a caucus so that it no longer depends on being affiliated with a party registered with Elections Canada, but can instead be any nine senators who want to affiliate themselves. The immediate upside of this is that it formalizes the break between the Conservative and Liberal duopoly that has dominated the Chamber for much of its history, and will grant actual formal status to the Independent Senators Group that the majority of the crossbench appointments have affiliated themselves with. Breaking the duopoly is good, because some of the past abuses in the Chamber were enabled by it – why come down hard on the rules when you’ll be the one to benefit from them next, when it’s “your turn” after all?

But where things go from here is where things get a bit more fraught. Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader – err, “representative,” is pleased as punch by this development because it creates more independence that moves in line with his vision of a chamber without partisan affiliation, where he can then recruit and co-opt senators to his caucuses at will. The notion that it gives senators the freedom to associate themselves in whatever configuration they choose – and usually people’s first idea is on regional lines – is fraught because it takes apart the Westminster model of government and opposition, which is fundamental to our system of government. The ability to have a coherent opposition is an important one, and if the Senate breaks up into interest groups, that makes coherent opposition more difficult, and generally makes it more difficult to hold a government to account – especially if those interest groups start agitating for their own particular special interests rather than having a big enough tent to encompass a multitude of views and regional dynamics within it, like we do now. If we let the Senate devolve into a collection of interest groups, what does that do about its ability to hold government to account, or to actually push back against bad legislation in a coherent manner when it counts to do so? While there is room to grow in the Chamber to permanently fit three or four different caucus groups, we should beware having too many factions. If some of those factions should choose to remain partisan, that shouldn’t be discouraged either – politics is partisan, and the Senate is a political body. That it is appointed, however, means that in most cases, the partisanship is more muted because they aren’t vying for re-election, which is as it should be. But while there are positive outcomes from this rule change, we should keep an eye on it so as to ensure that it doesn’t become abused, especially by those who would exploit the lack of coherent opposition for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells has a good read on the Senator Stephen Greene ouster, and how the two approaches to dealing with this new independent Senate – charm from Trudeau, discipline from the Conservatives – isn’t really working.

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Roundup: Not the cures for what ails the Commons

The latest round of Barish Chagger versus the opposition House Leaders started up yet again yesterday, and while my thoughts will be out in my next Loonie Politics column (up later today), I figured I’d take the opportunity to respond to Andrew Coyne’s musings about this latest round.

To wit, of his seven proposed reforms, Coyne only gets about three of them right – re-empowering the Speaker with regard to doing things like splitting out omnibus bills, restoring the various party caucuses’ ability to choose their leaders rather than the party memberships, and to ban scripts from the House of Commons (while ripping out the desks and implementing benches instead, Westminster-style), and letting the cameras get wide shots and reactions while they’re at it – something I too would agree with.

But then Coyne starts veering off into problematic territory. Turning over control of prorogation to the House of Commons is a Very Bad Idea because it fundamentally undermines the point of prorogation, which is that it allows the government to control its own agenda. It’s not up to the Commons to decide when the government needs to come up with a new list of priorities, and giving them the power to determine when they can hit the reset button throws that relationship out of balance – not to mention the lack of logic in requiring a supermajority to prorogue when they can declare non-confidence with a simple majority. Likewise, limiting the use of confidence undermines the whole bloody system and is utterly boneheaded.

Halving the size of cabinet? While the current Ministry has far less fat than previous ones, I think this has more to do with Coyne’s personal bugaboos about Cabinet construction in Canada than it does the problem with not having enough backbenchers in this country that diminished hope for a cabinet post allows for greater independence. Insisting that ministers answer questions put to them rather than fobbing them off to a junior? It’s less of an issue now than it used to be, but while we could theoretically empower the Speaker to insist, I worry that this becomes open to abuse (not to mention the fact that their refusal to answer is fodder for We The Media in holding them to account).

Of course, Coyne caps it off with his biggest eye-roller of all – that proportional representation will be the cure for all of our parliamentary ills. It won’t be of course, and will simply create a host of new problems (the extent of which depends greatly on just how the proportional system is constructed), but we’ve had experience with minority parliaments before. It didn’t make MPs more cooperative – it simply entrenched positions even harder, which a state of permanent minority or coalition government is all the more likely to do. So while Coyne is on the right path on a few ideas, his problematic or outright dangerous ideas outweigh the good.

Kady O’Malley, meanwhile, goes through a point-by-point deconstruction of the complaints that Michelle Rempel made over Twitter on Sunday night with regard to what she felt the imposition of a weekly Prime Ministers Questions would do, particularly around the media cycle, and while I’m no real fan of imposing a PMQ here (precisely because the rest of our debating culture is so bastardized that it would just make these problems even worse), O’Malley makes some particularly good points about why the opposition shouldn’t be overplaying their hands on this one.

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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).

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/857287321372291073

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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