Roundup: Commence the negotiations

We’re still talking NAFTA? Of course, we’re still talking NAFTA, as negotiations actually get underway today, so that’s exciting. If you need any more background (on top of what’s been said for the past several days) here’s a look at why Chrystia Freeland’s list of demands – especially around local procurement and labour mobility – might be a tough sell in the States, while the proposed chapters on gender and Indigenous issues are likely to be seen as simply expressions of the Trudeau government’s values. And while there aren’t any expectations that these negotiations will be easy, given that Trump is an Uncertainty Engine, trade experts are pointing out that Canada has more leverage than we think we do.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had plenty to say about the past couple of days:

This particular observation strikes me as so utterly unsurprising. (Seriously, MPs – you can do better):

And one more, because seriously:

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Roundup: Ontario superballots?

One of the many challenges of Canadian democracy is our geography – especially the fact that we have so much of it. Rural and remote regions tend to have large riding boundaries, and that causes its own share of problems, particularly when you have a number or ridings larger than countries like France, and no, that’s not an exaggeration. Ontario has been in the process of redrawing their riding boundaries after the federal government did in advance of the last election – notable because Ontario largely follows the federal riding boundaries, but in the past, they split one of the giant Northern Ontario ridings into two for practical purposes. Under this new redistribution, it looks like they want to split it into four instead. Where this becomes problematic is not only the fact that it far exceeds the usual 25 percent variance in rep-by-pop weighting that the courts usually allow, but it’s being justified in giving votes to francophone and Indigenous communities in the area.

In the National Post, Chris Selley takes on this particular proposition, and makes a very good point in that we don’t have any particular basis in this country for awarding “superballots” to traditionally underserved communities as a means of reconciliation or redress. Add to that fact, that while the commission may talk a good game about better enfranchising these Indigenous communities, they traditionally have lower turnouts not only for lack of access by elections officials, but because in some of those communities, they resist taking part because they don’t see themselves as part of Canada, but as a sovereign nation within Canadian boundaries, and participating in Canadian elections would undermine that sovereignty. I’m not sure that “superballots” would change that particular consideration for them either, which could make the commission’s excuse for naught. Would that mean that in these newly created ridings that the non-Indigenous voters who do participate have their votes count that much more? Quite possibly. And while one does understand the frustration and challenges of an immense Northern riding, there are other ways to mitigate those issues, with greater allowances for offices, staff and travel considerations that the government should be ponying up for. I’m not sure that this new proposal is going to pass the Supreme Court of Canada’s smell test.

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Roundup: A sudden demand for subsidies

Something that went largely unremarked yesterday was a somewhat bizarre press release that Andrew Scheer put out, bemoaning the lack of cellphone coverage in one region of Quebec, and then wondered why the government had all kind of money to spend on other things but not this, and then lumped it in with softwood lumber and Supply Management as a Quebec priority.

https://twitter.com/journo_dale/status/889841610665730048

While the fact that the Conservative leader was in essence demanding subsidized cellphone coverage in one particular region is strange in and of itself, it should be a reminder that this is no longer a party of actual fiscal conservatism – it’s a party of economic populism that just happens to chant about balanced budgets for the sake of it. To be certain, this is the first time I’ve seen cellphone coverage being listed as a top priority from Scheer or the Conservatives, and as many of my Twitter followers pointed out, there are plenty of places in this country with poor or non-existent coverage, especially along the TransCanada highway – somewhere one might expect that it might be some kind of national priority. But I’m also curious as to what exactly Scheer proposes to do about it that government deficits aren’t taking care of – language that seems to imply that they’re not simply going to demand that companies provide this coverage through regulatory means. Add to that, they were in power for almost a decade and did nothing about these kinds of coverage gaps, so it makes one wonder why it suddenly became a priority unless it just happens to be somewhere that Scheer is hoping to pick up some votes. Crass politicking? Perish the thought!

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Roundup: The question of the Speaker

The mounting speculation in BC is now starting to focus on the race for Speaker in the legislature – or rather, the lack of a race. Word has it that the Liberals plan on putting no one forward, and the NDP/Greens are making similar noises as well. The lack of a Speaker could mean that the legislature winds up being dissolved and heading back to an election, as precedent from Newfoundland would indicate. But if, by some miracle, the Lieutenant Governor manages to cajole the legislature into at least trying to attempt to elect a Speaker (by trying to avoid a new election at all costs), then there is the possible situation that the Liberals could put forward one of their own, and if Clark is defeated on a confidence vote, have that Speaker then resign and force the NDP to put forward one of their own, which again shifts the balance to 43-43, and possibly hastening the demise of a possible NDP government.

What this means is that Christy Clark is not out of cards to play yet, and that no these are not tricks or games – they’re legitimate exercises of parliamentary authority, and I cannot stress enough that Clark is a very skilled retail politician. She has made the right moves about sounding like she’s willing to do a spell in opposition, and that she’s not looking to go to an election right away, but she can very easily turn around and say that she tried to be reasonable and they didn’t take yes for an answer on any number of issues, and the deadlock would quickly turn into dissolution where she has an NDP-Green agenda laid out before her that she can pick apart in an election campaign. Any suggestion that she simply bow out gracefully and turn over the keys remains premature, and the insistence that an NDP government is inevitable is counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Just because most of the pundit class doesn’t have an understanding of how the system works and the options available to Clark, doesn’t mean that she’s done for. I suspect there will be many surprises left to come, all sold with her skill and charm.

Meanwhile, Clarks’ former press secretary notes that the deal the Green signed actually weakened their ability to exert influence. Andrew Coyne pens a satirical letter from “political strategists” offering cynical (but not necessarily wrong) advice. Colby Cosh looks at the looming Speaker drama and the many other hurdles that would wreck an NDP government, giving it 22 months.

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QP: A failed gotcha moment

With the PM flying back from Italy, Andrew Scheer was still left waiting for his sparring match with Trudeau despite being fired up on caucus day. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading the accusation that the Infrastructure Bank was to be used for buying favours of friends. Amarjeet Sohi responded with his well-worn reply that the Bank would free up capital for communities to spend it on other needs. Scheer worried that taxpayers would be left on the hook when loans couldn’t be repaid, and Sohi assured him that only projects in the public interest would go ahead and that they ensured accountability. Scheer read some more concern about risk and the government co-signing loans for the one percent. Sohi reiterated his previous points. Scheer then switched to French to lament the nomination of Madeleine Meilleur, and Mélanie Joly reiterated her usual points about Meilleur’s qualifications. For his last question, Scheer railed about Karla Homolka being found volunteering at a school, and Ralph Goodall fielded the question, noting the robustness of background checks. Thomas Mulcair was up next, railing about Meilleur and demanding a parliamentary inquiry into her appointment process, and Joly gave her standard reply. When Mulcair insisted that there were too many conflicts of interest, Joly noted that committees are independent, and reiterated previous points. Mulcair then changed topics, and demanded a free vote on adopting the Electoral Reform committee report. Karina Gould said it was surprising that the NDP wanted to adopt the report considering that they didn’t even agree with it. Mulcair then changed to the issue of KPMG, and Diane Lebouthillier noted investments in cracking down on tax evasion.

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Roundup: The difficulty with tracking spending

The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s latest analysis shows that it’s difficult to track budgetary spending commitments because they don’t often line up with the Supplementary Estimates. And yes, this is a problem. The solution is something that the government has already committed to, which is to reform the Estimates process. Right now, it is out of sync with the budget, where the Estimates need to be out before the beginning of the new fiscal year, but there is no set time for the budget to be released, meaning that the allocation of budget dollars happens before Parliament sees the budget. Later allocations to match the budget are supposed to then show up in the Supplementary Estimates, but as the PBO shows in his analysis, that’s hard to track. And even harder to track is whether those Estimates wound up being spent properly because the accounting systems used between the Estimates and the Public Accounts at the end of the fiscal year no longer match up, so tracking those dollars is also near-impossible. This has been an ongoing problem for decades, and the Liberals were elected on a promise to fix this problem. They have started to, but in recent months, the Treasury Board president, Scott Brison, says he has encountered resistance from the civil service when it comes to how they time things, and he’s trying to fix it. So that’s the hope, anyway.

What I hope comes from this exercise, however, is increased pressure on Brison and the government to carry on with reforming the Estimates cycle so that it better matches the budget cycle, and that the Estimates match the Public Accounts at the end of the year so that money can actually be tracked. What I hope doesn’t happen is for this to turn into calls to turn over yet more power and authority for scrutinizing the estimates to the PBO because that’s the whole raison d’etre of MPs, and they should be demanding that it be in a format that they can use and understand.

And while we’re on the subject of the PBO, here’s Kevin Milligan on the proposed amendments to the new PBO legislation, and why he still has concerns (as I do) about creating a massively powerful Officer of Parliament with no oversight or accountability.

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QP: Not taking yes for an answer

Scheer’s second day in the Commons as leader, and the PM was still in Italy. Even Speaker Regan was away, and it was Deputy Speaker Stanton in the chair instead. Scheer led off worrying about the TransMountain pipeline in the face of a potential NDP government in BC — never mind that the PM already told the press earlier that it was going ahead regardless. Jim Carr reiterated that same point in his reply, but Scheer was unconvinced, railing about how Northern Gateway was also approved at one point before it was cancelled (which isn’t exactly how things happened). Carr reiterated that the process for TransMountain was exhaustive, and had been approved. Scheer turned to the issue of the Infrastructure Bank, and Amarjeet Sohi insisted that the Bank was necessary to get private capital into infrastructure. Scheer insisted that the Bank was ripe for abuse and corruption, but Sohi reminded him that it would be accountable to Parliament. For his final question, Scheer concern trolled about the nomination of Madeleine Meilleur as Languages Commissioner, to which Mélanie Joly insisted that Meilleur was the most qualified candidate. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and asked about amendments to the PBO legislation. Bardish Chagger read a card about the committee’s important work and that they have accepted a number of their bills. Mulcair ripped into Chagger’s talking points, to which Chagger put down her comments to insist that they listened and have delivered on the amendments. Mulcair then turn to the Infrastructure Bank, wondering about the hands of BlackRock in it, and Sohi listed the great things they could help fund. Mulcair then accused the government of interfering in provincial jurisdiction with the Bank, but Sohi parried, noting it was just another funding option.

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QP: Woe be Vegreville

With the PM away and Rona Ambrose already gone, the Conservatives surprisingly led with Shannon Stubbs, who railed about the plans to close the Vegreville immigration processing centre, in light of revelations of costs associated. Ralph Goodall took this one, noting the difficulty in filling current vacancies in the centre, and that the new centre in Edmonton would double its capacity. Stubbs angrily insisted that the government had lied about the costs, but Goodale insisted that the issue was capacity. Stubbs accused the government of punishing a small town with a Conservative MP in favour of moving it to a Liberal riding, but Goodale stood firm. Gérard Deltell got up next and railed about the government cutting tax credits, to which Scott Brison reminded him that their tax measures helped those who needed it the most. Deltell tried again, railing about the transit tax credit loss (seriously, it was bad policy no matter which way you slice it), and Brison listed the good economic news since the Liberals took power. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and in French, concerned trolled that Bardish Chagger wasn’t up to picking a new Ethics Commissioner. Chagger reminded him of the open and transparent process in place. Mulcair switched to English and wondered what the Liberals would think if Stephen Harper called on Paul Calandra to choose a new Commissioner, but Chagger repeated her answer. Mulcair then turned to the issue of the Official Languages Commissioner, and wondered in what role Gerald Butts communicated with Madeleine Meilleur before her appointment. Joly noted that candidates were vetted and interviewed after a rigorous process and that she spoke with other parties who agreed that she had credentials. Mulcair tried again in French, and got the same answer.

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QP: Bell Island conspiracies

With Justin Trudeau on his way to the Microsoft conference in Washington State, and Rona Ambrose bowing out, there were only two leaders present for QP today. Candice Bergen led off, railing about the PM’s Xmas vacation — again — using the reach of a story about the island’s ownership to raise doubts. Bardish Chagger gave the usual reply. Bergen used this as a hook for a question to accuse Chagger of being the wrong person to be in charge of finding a new Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded her that the process is open and anyone can apply. Bergen insisted that the government was simply looking for Liberal donors, citing Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as Official Languages Commissioner. Diane Lebouthillier took this one, praising Meilleur’s record. Gérard Deltell was up next, worrying about the Infrastructure Bank and the search for a board despite the fact that it had not been created yet. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him of the value of the Bank, and that they wanted to gave board members ready to be appointed when the Bank’s creation was authorised by Parliament. On a second go from Deltell, François-Philippe Champagne took the opportunity to tout the Invest in Canada Agency that they were also looking for appointees for. Thomas Mulcair was up next, spinning a conspiracy about the tentacles of KPMG infiltrating everywhere, and Lebouthillier got up to note all of the measures they were taking to combat tax evasion. Mulcair asked again in French, and got the same answer. Mulcair then took a swipe at Meilleur’s appointment at Languages Commissioner, and Lebouthillier repeated her lines about Meilleur’s record. Mulcair demanded that Chagger recuse herself from the selection of the Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded him of the open process.

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Roundup: Not a council of elders

As his retirement date fast approaches, outgoing Liberal Senator James Cowan is once again warning against Peter Harder’s plans to disband partisan caucuses in the Senate, fearing that trying to make it “council of elders” or advisory body will make it less effective as a body. He’s right, of course, but I would refine that a little more in saying that it would make the Senate less effective in holding the government to account, which is one of its key features, and in fact, one of the features that defines a Westminster-style parliament.

There are other ways in which effectiveness might be blunted in that any kinds of legislation, inquiries or studies that Senators might otherwise champion could be more easily diffused and go nowhere given that there would be little in the way or organizational capacity to have like-minded senators help move it forward. Having 101 loose fish is a poor way to run an effective body, and yet that is what some people think that an “independent” chamber means, rather than focusing on one that is less partisan and that far more easily works across party lines to get the work done that is being asked of them. And it totally wouldn’t have to do with a Government Leader – err, “government representative” would would rather have a body of independent senators that he can manipulate and manoeuvre as he and his political masters wish. Perish the thought.

This having all been said, we’ll miss Senator Cowan greatly. He’s been a credit to the institution and provided a great deal of leadership during a difficult few years for his caucus.

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