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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Roundup: Private islands and tall poppies

Another day, another excuse found for the Twitter-verse to light their hair on fire over something Justin Trudeau did. In this case, it was the fact that it was disclosed that he spent his holidays in the Bahamas at the private island of the Aga Khan, citing that he is a long-time personal family friend and yes, he repaid the costs of flying the Challenger to Nassau. And boom, they were off. The fact that successive governments have funded initiatives from the Aga Khan Foundation is suddenly “proof” that this is some kind of conflict of interest, and of course at least one Conservative leadership candidate is citing this as some kind of proof of broken rules and violated ethics, other Conservatives going one step further to crying that this is some kind of slap in the face to all of those out of work Albertans.

Are you serious?

While you have some columnists like Chris Selley going “See! See! This is why we need to know where the PM goes on holiday!” I’m still not seeing where the actual conflict of interest is here. The Aga Khan does not get money from the government – his Foundation does, and that’s not the same thing. Assuming he were to lobby Trudeau while he was there, what would the result be? Some more money for a maternal and child health programme? Some more school books for Syrian refugee children? Wait, let me clutch my pearls over that. The only thing that did pique my curiosity in the slightest was that this was not run by the Ethics Commissioner, as seems to be the thing to do these days, but again, not actually seeing where there’s a real conflict here.

Part of what I suspect is at work here, particularly around comments like Rempel’s, is the reflexive pettiness that Canadian journalism stokes around any kind of conscious display of wealth or privilege by our political class. Yes, Trudeau has a foot in the world of the global jet set, owing in part to his upbringing and father’s international celebrity (which he has since adopted), and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a PM like that. The last guy was so hell-bent on curating this image of being a boring minivan-driving hockey dad (despite the fact that he never drove a minivan, always worked a job that was either in politics or political advocacy and as far as I can tell, his kids never actually played hockey), and was part of a political crew who thought that doing more than serving Ritz crackers and ginger ale for a diplomatic reception was some kind of affront, that it’s seeped into our political discourse to ill effect. Couple that with this ethos in the journalism community that has tried to preserve this somewhat faux blue-collar anti-elitist aesthetic that they jump to participating in this kind of tearing down, pretty much proving the rule of tall poppy syndrome that exists in this country, and add in a dose of the lazy drive to push cheap outrage stories, and we get more of this tiresome concern trolling. Once again, the details of this story are fairly academic, but I’m not seeing either the smoke or the fire. Except for where they’ve set their own hair ablaze yet again, of course.

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Roundup: Chagger on fundraising

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger talked to the Huffington Post, and the headline had all of my media colleagues grasping for their pearls as she declared that the House of Commons was not the place to discuss Liberal fundraisers. And if I’m going to go full pedant on this, she’s right – to an extent. On its face, fundraising is party business and really nothing to do with the administrative responsibility of the government. Why this current round of eye-rolling nonsense around so-called “cash for access” fundraising (which isn’t actually cash for access in the sense that we got used to talking about with Ontario) is because the opposition is trying to link those fundraisers with conflicts of interest from the government, all based on insinuation with no actual proof of quid pro quo. But because there is this tenuous connection, the questions are being allowed, and they get to make all manner of accusations that would otherwise be considered libellous before the cameras under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Indeed, when Ambrose accused the government of acting illegally with those fundraisers, Chagger invited her to step outside of the Chamber to repeat those accusations. Ambrose wouldn’t, for the record.

Where this might resonate are with memories of the previous parliament, with endless questions about the ClusterDuff affair, and the operations of the Senate, and those various and sundry questions that came up time and again, and which were rarely actually about things that were the administrative responsibility of the government. And every now and again, Speaker Andrew Scheer would say so. But contrary to the opinions of some, this wasn’t something that Scheer made up out of thin air.

In fact, Scheer was too lenient for many of these questions, and there are sometimes that I think that Regan is even more so. Most of the NDP questions asked during the height of the ClusterDuff affair were blatantly out of order, asked for the sake of grandstanding. That the questions with the current fundraising contretemps have made this tenuous link to government operations and decisions is the only thing that makes them marginally relevant to QP. That said, the hope that this will somehow tarnish the government or grind down their ethical sheen generally depends on there being actual rules broken or actual impropriety, which there hasn’t been. Meanwhile, a bunch of issues that the opposition should be holding the government to account for are languishing because they need to put up six MPs a day on this. But hey, at least they’re providing clips to the media as opposed to doing their jobs, right?

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QP: Accusations of illegality

Despite the fact that he was in town, Justin Trudeau decided to go to Shopify for Hour of Code instead of attend QP. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying about lost jobs, the Trumpocalypse of halved taxes to impact our economic competitiveness. Navdeep Bains responded, reciting some praise by companies who are investing in this country. Ambrose worried about plans to tax health and dental benefits, to which Scott Brison listed the ways in which they have made the system more progressive and the introduction of new child benefits. In French, Ambrose worried about what other taxes would be raised, and Brison answered partly in French about lowering taxes before switching to English to talk about the need for a strong middle class to have a strong economy. Ambrose then turned to a pair of questions on fundraising, calling them illegal. Bardish Chagger reminded her that the rules were strict and followed, and invited Ambrose to repeat any accusations of illegality outside of the House. Thomas Mulcair was up next, accusing Dominic LeBlanc of lying about business not being discussed at one of these fundraisers, and Chagger repeated the usual points about the rules. Mulcair asked again in French, got the same answer, and then demanded decriminalisation of marijuana in advance of legalisation. Jody Wilson-Raybould reminded him they were in the midst of a comprehensive review in advance of legislation coming in the spring. Mulcair asked again in English in a more snide tone, and Wilson-Raybould reiterated that the point of legalisation was to keep it out of the hands of children and profits from the hands of criminals.

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