Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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Roundup: Backbenchers already have jobs

There were a couple of competing tweet storms that went out yesterday – one from Alex Usher, who seems to think that maybe backbench MPs should consider their jobs to be part-time and take on a second job, and Emmett Macfarlane, who (correctly) thinks that idea is a bunch of bunkum.

As Kady O’Malley points out, it’s not actually against the rules.

And hey, there’s even an academic study that shows that the public (at least in the UK) isn’t too keen on backbenchers taking on second jobs.

I’m going to assume that much of Usher’s position comes from ignorance, because let’s face it – most people, including most MPs, don’t know what an MP’s job description is supposed to be. (Hint: It’s holding the government to account). But because most MPs don’t know that’s their main job, many of them spend their days burning their time and energy doing things like writing up and promoting a dozen private members’ bills that will never see the light of day, or crusading for causes that are as much about getting their own face in the news than they are about helping those in need (or maybe I’m just cynical). The point, however, is that if Usher thinks MPs are bored and in need of something to do, I would suggest that those MPs should actually be doing their jobs, and if they’re actually doing it right, then they shouldn’t be bored. They especially shouldn’t be bored if they’re doing their jobs correctly and not just reading scripts into the record prepared by the leader’s office (and to be fair, there are a few MPs who don’t, even though they’ll still rely on prepared speeches). If we carry on with this path of making MPs obsolete by turning them into drones then sure, I can see Usher’s point, but the answer is not to let them take on outside work. The answer is for them to actually learn their own jobs and do them. Parliament would be vastly improved if that were actually the case.

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Roundup: Recall legislation nonsense

Over at Loonie Politics, fellow columnist Jonathan Scott wonders if recall legislation might not be a good thing for ethical violations, and cites the examples of Senators Don Meredith, Lynn Beyak, and a York Region school trustee who used a racial slur against a Black parent. While I’m suspicious about recall legislation to begin with, two of the examples are completely inappropriate, while the third was an example of someone who resigned a few days later, making the need for such legislation unnecessary in the first place.

Recall legislation for senators is a bit boggling, first of all, because they weren’t elected to the position, and they have institutional independence so that they can speak truth to power and have the ability to stop a government with a majority precisely so that they can hit the brakes on runaway populism if need be. Recall legislation would be fed by that similar populist sentiment, which is a problem. I’m also baffled, frankly, how anyone could conceivably consider Meredith and Beyak in the same sentence. Meredith abused his position to sexually lure a minor, while Beyak said some stupid and odious things under the rubric of religious sentiment (i.e. at least some residential school survivors stayed Christians, so that apparently justifies everything). The two are not comparable, nor is Beyak’s example any kind of an ethical violation, nor am I convinced that it’s an offence worthy of resignation because at least there’s the possibility that she can learn more about why what she said was so wrong-headed. Sure, people are upset with it, while others are performing outrage over social media because that’s what we do these days, but trying to channel that sentiment into recall legislation raises all kinds of alarm bells because even if you had a fairly high bar or findings from an ethics officer to trigger these kinds of recall elections (and the suggested 2500 signatures of constituents is too low of an added bar), temporary performed outrage demanding action this instant would be constantly triggering these kinds of fights. If you think there are too many distractions in politics to the issues of the day, this would make it all the worse.

As for Meredith, while he is too shameless to resign of his own accord, the rest of the Senate is not likely to let this issue slide for too long. The only question is really how effectively they can implement a system of due process by which Meredith can plead his case before them and respect the rules of natural justice before they hold a vote to vacate his seat based on the findings of the Senate Ethics Officer. Demanding recall legislation after a story is only a couple of days old is the height of foolishness. The Senate doesn’t sit for another two weeks, which is time that frankly they’ll need to get their ducks in a row so that they don’t come back half-cocked and try and ham-fist the process like they did with Duffy/Wallin/Brazeau back in the day. Meredith will get his due, and we won’t need the threat of ridiculous legislation to try and keep politicians in line.

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Roundup: A mystifying new delay

It yet another attempt to throw a spanner into the workings of the legislative process trying to bring genetic privacy legislation to fruition in this country, the government has decided to hold yet more consultations while they simultaneously are attempting to gut the bill at report stage, despite the objections of the Senate (which passed the bill originally) and the Commons justice committee, which studied the bill, heard from witnesses, and gave it an all-clear.

Jody Wilson-Raybould is suddenly brandishing letters from three provinces who have “concerns” about the constitutionality of the bill, despite the fact that they never objected in the years – and I will stress years – that this bill has been wending its way through parliament, both in the previous parliament and the current one. Seven provinces indicated support, and there are legal and constitutional scholars that have testified that the mechanisms in the bill are perfectly sound and within federal jurisdiction. None of this should be in dispute, but for as much as the government professes to care about this issue, the fact that they are quick to try and gut the bill and leave it up for a patchwork of provincial laws for the insurance component of genetic discrimination – which is a very big issue – it’s mystifying. I have heard grumblings that the only kinds of bills that they favour are their own, which I get, but at the same time, this is a piece of legislation that has already withstood a great deal of scrutiny and is something that is critically needed, as we are the only western country that doesn’t have these kinds of protections. With any luck, the Liberal backbenchers are going to push back on the attempts to gut the bill and it can move ahead, but right now, the constant delay is lacking coherence.

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Roundup: A painful lesson in committee cooperation

News broke yesterday morning that rogue Liberal backbencher Nate Erskine-Smith had been reassigned from the public safety committee by the party whip, and immediately everyone was all “uh oh, this is totally because he spoke out against his party.” Yes, Erskine-Smith has been making all kinds of waves, talking about his disagreement with the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, advocating for the decriminalisation of all illegal drugs to treat them as a public health as opposed to a criminal law issue, and most recently, prostrating himself before his electorate to decry his government’s decision to abandon electoral reform (and using the curious tactic of using language that both undermines his government’s legitimacy and advocates for a system that undermines the very agency he has as an MP to stand apart from his party, but whatever).

Of course, it also appears that none of those commenters from the peanut gallery actually bothered to read the story about why Erskine-Smith was yanked from the committee, and it had little to do with his outspokenness than the fact that he was overly naïve as a newbie MP if trying to make parliament a nicer place. In this case, he wanted to operate by consensus on the committee and tried to get the other parties onside for amending the bill on establishing a national security committee of parliamentarians. The problem was that in the process, he was manipulated by Tony Clement into deleting some of his government’s own provisions because, you know, consensus and working together! So yeah, painful lesson, and maybe he’ll learn to be a little less trusting the next time. I get that you want parliament to be a nicer place and politics to be done better, but if you’re not careful, your opponents will (metaphorically) shiv you because they have their own goals, and they don’t necessarily want to buy into your platform. And let’s not forget that the competition of ideas is part of what keeps our system vital and accountable.

Of course, the fact that the whip could take this step has the usual suspects up in arms about how too much power is in the hands of the leader (by way of the whip), and the standard calls about reforming committees were trotted out. The Liberal Party’s promises on committee reform – more resources, electing chairs by secret ballot, and ensuring parliamentary secretaries are no longer voting members – were pretty much accomplished, but Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong has his own reform ideas (try to look surprised), but reading them over, I have doubts. In particular, his plan to take away the power to assign MPs to committees and replacing it with a secret ballot process is dubious, in particular because a) I can’t imagine trying to count those ballots, b) it won’t solve the problems of MPs all trying to get onto the “sexier” committees while leaving some of the less exciting ones to be scrounging for members, c) critics – which the leader assigns – are on those committees, so for a party like the NDP, the secret balloting process would be useless, and d) this is a typical Chong suggestion of a solution in search of a problem. MPs like to bitch and moan about being assigned to committees they don’t like, but rarely actually ask for committee assignments, nor do they seem to have an appreciation that sometimes the party has to spread out their talent to places where it’s needed as opposed to where MPs want to go.

I’m also not keen on Chong’s plan to merge five committees to bring down the total number because there’s no actual need. We have 338 MPs and we don’t have a super-sized cabinet with a bloated parliamentary secretary brigade to match it, and in the previous parliament, they already reduced committees from 12 to 10 members apiece. There are enough MPs to go around, and merging the mandates of committees overloads them rather than letting them undertake studies of their own accord, which they should be doing. There’s no real crisis of overloading MPs with work right now (which was not always the case), so this particular suggestion seems gratuitous.

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Roundup: O’Leary’s debate debut

Saturday night was another Conservative leadership “debate,” and again I use the term loosely because there was very little debating going on. Yes, this particular event did offer more chances for rebuttal, but given that it was staged and structured like the most boring academic conference ever (all it was missing was a line-up at the floor mic for people to give fifteen minute speeches in the guise of asking questions to the panel), we still didn’t get a lot of candidates challenging one another. Not that it didn’t happen – it did, but most of the candidates spent their time taking shots at either Kevin O’Leary (particularly deriding him as not being a Conservative), and Maxime Bernier (most especially around his ideas about equalisation, which, to be fair, are a bit daft).

Going after Bernier may not seem like the think you would expect, but he has been leading the race in terms of fundraising, which is not an insignificant thing. One does have to wonder, however, if there are enough self-described libertarians in the Conservative Party to give him the edge he needed. Bernier, incidentally, says he was being attacked because his opponents are afraid of his position on equalisation. And to be fair, he’s probably right, but not for the reason he thinks, but rather because it has the potential to severely damage the party in the more “have not” provinces of the country, most especially in Atlantic Canada, where they already have zero seats.

As for O’Leary, this was his first real event on the campaign, and he didn’t exactly sparkle, but he did stand out from his competitors a few times, both when he refused to criticise the country’s justice system, pointing to his experience abroad, and in the kinds of shots he took at the current government, which were of a more brash tone than other candidates were taking. He also played his ethnic cards, saying he would consider it a personal failure if Lebanese Canadians didn’t all take out party memberships and declaring that he “owns the Irish vote.” Okay then. Will his brashness that help him? Maybe, considering how very milquetoast most of his competition has been, and the crowd who laps up this populist demagoguery seems to love people who “tell it like it is.” O’Leary, meanwhile, shrugged off the attacks and kept his cool, and didn’t take the bait and made a point of directing his attacks to Trudeau (and premiers Wynne and MacNeil) instead of his fellow candidates.

And the rest? Lisa Raitt had her best night ever, possibly bolstered by the fact that it was a bit of a hometown crowd for her, and she seems to be making her working-class roots that much more of her narrative, but I’m still having a hard time seeing what kind of direction she proposes to lead the party in other than “I’m everything Trudeau is not.” Also, props for bringing up that Globe and Mail piece on “unfounded” sexual assault rates and challenging the government to do something about it. Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux were laughable, Chris Alexander seemed to be doing a lot of “me too” to the points of other candidates – most especially Raitt – but had nothing really new to say. Andrew Scheer made a point of being parochial, Michael Chong remains the grown-up at the table which probably dooms his campaign, and for as middle-of-the-road as he is, everyone was quoting Erin O’Toole’s big line of the night saying “We don’t beat the celebrity-in-chief with another celebrity-in-chief.” The problem is that nobody quoted the second half of his statement where he brought up Robert Stanfield as the model to follow. Remember Stanfield? Who never beat the celebrity PM of his day (being Pierre Elliott Trudeau) and who never became prime minister? Yeah, not sure that was the wisest analogy. Also, O’Toole kept making Silence of the Lambs references, but completely wrong ones. He thought he was being funny by calling all 32 Atlantic Canadian Liberal MPs “lambs” who were “silent,” when Silence of the Lambs is about a cannibal and a serial killer. Not sure that was appropriate. Oh, and about eight or nine candidates need to drop out by oh, yesterday, because at this point, they’re going to start doing more damage than good.

Meanwhile, Peter MacKay says that Leitch’s immigration policy is going to damage the party, while Michelle Rempel lists the things she’s looking for in making a decision about a leadership candidate (and spoiler: Kevin O’Leary wouldn’t make the cut).

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Roundup: The business of selling seats

Kevin O’Leary went on television on the weekend, because of course he did, and then said a bunch of nonsense. Because of course he did. This time, it was to whine about how it’s not fair that rich people can’t fund their own campaigns, and to say that he thinks that the Senate should be a profit centre rather than a cost, and charging people $100K to $200K per year for the privilege of sitting there. No, seriously. He has said he thinks it’s fine to sell seats in a house of Parliament, and nobody challenged him on that point of the fact that it’s grossly unconstitutional. (Only a later update of the story added quotes from Emmett Macfarlane that appeared to be what he tweeted on the subject).

Not only that, but you immediately had a bunch of chuckleheads showing up on the Twitter Machine going “a plain reading of the constitution would say this is allowed” without any hint that they are being ironic. Before Leonid Sirota beat me to the punch, I was going to remind everyone that the idea of selling Senate seats came up during the Supreme Court of Canada hearing on the Senate reference, where Justice Cromwell cornered the government’s lawyers on the question of “consultative elections” and how they wouldn’t require a change in the constitution. “If consultative elections are allowed, then why not a consultative auction?” asked Justice Cromwell, and well, the government lawyer had to basically swallow that one. (To remind you, they ruled that consultative elections are not allowed without a change to the constitution).

I would also add that for as much as we’ve (rightfully) lambasted O’Leary on this ludicrous idea, the NDP and others have been floating around a similar idea in the past about defunding the Senate and making it a volunteer position – you know, so that just like O’Leary’s plan, it becomes available to only the super-rich who have the time and resources to devote to doing the work. Because that’s exactly the kinds of people we want to fill those seats. Not to mention, if O’Leary thinks that Senate seats should be up for sale, why not any other federally appointed position – judges, heads of tribunals, Commissioner of the RCMP? All profit generators instead of a drain on the taxpayer, right? Yeah, no.

On a related note, O’Leary said that if he does win the leadership, he wouldn’t be in any rush to run in a by-election but would spend time crossing the country to gather support. Because this is what happens when you don’t insist that the leadership be from caucus. It elevates the position above what it should be, and diminishes the role of caucus and the value of a seat in parliament. Leadership races should be by caucus selection, not membership vote. We’ve bastardized our system enough, and we need to reign it in.

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Roundup: Annotating the 2016 Senate look back

The National Post had a look back over the changes made to the Senate over the past year, and a look at what’s coming up, so I figured I’d offer a few annotations along the way, because this is what we do here.

First of all, yes most of the new appointments came with small-l liberal values, and yes, that is a problem for the broader diversity of the chamber, which should have broad philosophical differences in it so that a more effective opposition to government policy can be offered. And as one Senator also said to me, it would be great if the next round didn’t all come from the social sciences. Because yeah, that too is another noticeable similarity. The Independent Senators’ Group also says that they won’t all vote together unless it’s an issue of Senate rules or logistics. This immediately prompted one of the most partisan of partisan defenders to leap to the attack.

I’m going to give some of these votes a pass because the bulk of the new senators are just that – new, and they haven’t had enough time to study up on the bills to come up with enough reasons to vote against them, other than perhaps for the sake of voting against them to show displeasure with the government. That these were mostly budget bills doesn’t really help Batters’ critique either because the Senate has to be careful with money bills, defeating them only on the most critical of issues which these budget bills were not. The rule of thumb is also that most senators become more independent with time, and these ones have barely managed to get their offices sorted, let alone figure out opposition stances.

There is but a brief mention under logistics that the Government Leader – err, “government representative” Senator Peter Harder says the “chamber will no longer be home to the government-versus-opposition Westminster-model,” but then leaves it at that. This is a very big deal, and one of the reasons why Peter Harder needs to be stopped. Throwing out the Westminster model in favour of 101 “loose fish” is a Very Bad Thing because it guts the effectiveness of the Senate as an accountability body, forcing it to rely either on subject-matter experts in the Chamber that may not disagree with the government, or by leaving independent senators vulnerable to the machinations of either Harder or government ministers promising favours. This, let me repeat, is a Very Bad Thing.

Finally, while it points out that senators have been more active in amending government bills, it requires a bit more context. Two of those bills, assisted dying and RCMP unionization, were born of Supreme Court of Canada decisions that the government of the day didn’t do a particularly thrilling job of drafting. The consumer protection aspects of Bill C-29? That was as much pressure from the Quebec Government as it was the Senate committee. And Bill S-3 on gender discrimination in Indian Act registration? Another bill stemming from a Supreme Court of Canada decision that was poorly drafted, but the fact that the government tabled the bill in the Senate instead of the Commons means that those flaws were exposed there first, and is not indicative of an overly aggressive Senate as it was a bad bill. Context matters, which this article doesn’t really get right.

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Roundup: Postcards for values

Yesterday the National Post reported that the government is planning on sending a postcard to every household in the nation and asking them to head to a website to answer questions about their democratic values. Immediately the Twitter-verse went into full-snark mode, wondering why the government would do this rather than hold a referendum, and wondering at the cost of such an exercise, but there were a few phrases that struck me as I read it, and that goes back to the fact that they’re asking Canadians what values they’re looking for in their voting system as opposed to asking them to choose a system. Why does that matter? Because it basically allows the government to justify whatever decision they end up making by selling it as living up to the greatest number of the “values” they got feedback on. And when the committee report comes back a deadlock with several dissenting reports (as it inevitably will), the government will be further empowered to finally suffocate the whole ill-fated enterprise and list all of the ways the current system conforms to the majority of the “values” that they polled Canadians on, and lo, we shall never speak of this again. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, PEI had their plebiscite on electoral reform and with a stunningly low voter turnout of 36 percent even with several days of voting, lowering the age to 16, and giving people a myriad of options to vote including online, it came down to several preferential rounds where Mixed-Member Proportional won a very narrow 52 percent win. This again translated into two very different sets of reactions – elation from the PR crowd for whom this validates their crusading on the topic, never mind that the mandate for said system is really, really weak (between the low turnout and the fact that it took several drop-off rounds to get that bare majority vote), or the fact that the plebiscite was by definition non-binding and there is more than enough opportunity for the government to get out of it (and really, I’m not sure that such a low vote is mandate enough to make such an important change). The other reaction was a sense of somewhat smugness from proponents of a referendum on electoral reform at the federal level, basically telling their opponents (who insist that such a referendum would favour the status quo) that they’re wrong. But if you think about it, such a low turnout and the fact that MMP barely squeaked past may indeed be an indication that there was more of a desire for the status quo than is being acknowledged. Nevertheless, both groups are going to be insufferable for days to come.

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Roundup: The whinge of the everyman

I had hoped that after the last round of appointments that we were done with the vapid narcissistic “everyman/woman” wannabe candidates for the Senate would finally go back into the woodwork, but no, I see that we are indulging them once more in a plaintive wail about how terribly unfair it is that deserving, qualified candidates with decades of community and specialty experience got the nod and not them. Because who wouldn’t want an expert in the field when you could get a hot dog vendor or a draftsman who will totally enrich the legislative experience by…um, well, I’m not really sure. I mean, that’s kind of why we have a House of Commons, right? So that the everyman/woman can run and get their chance to do their part and influence policy and so on? And then the Senate goes over their work to ensure that they haven’t made mistakes with the legislation and that it’s all looking good. You know, that whole sober second thought thing? Still failing to see what value a hot dog vendor is going to add to that process. But oh noes! Elites! To which I simply reply “So what?” Do you, hot dog vendor and draftsman who are complaining to the media that your application was passed over, actually know the role and function of the Senate? Because based on everything you’ve said here, I’m not seeing that indication at all.

Meanwhile, Senator Peter Harder is coming to the defence of the new appointment system (as he obviously would, being a recipient of its beneficence already), but takes a few gratuitous swipes at the partisans still in the Senate while he’s at it. But there’s a key paragraph in there toward the bottom, where he talks about how Trudeau “voluntarily relinquished one of the traditional levers of power of his political party and of his office” when he expelled his senators from his caucus, and it rankles just a bit. Why? Because Trudeau didn’t so much give up one traditional lever of power so much as he used the show of relinquishing his lever to gain control over a bunch of other levers instead that are less obvious, from centralizing power over the MPs in his caucus with their institutional memory driven from the room, or his now using ministers to meet with individual senators to try to cut deals for support and using Harder’s own empire-building efforts to “colonize” the new independent senators with his offers of “support” and constant attempts to bigfoot the efforts of the Independent Senators Group to establish their own processes. So no, government influence has not been driven from the Senate – it’s just changed forms, and not necessarily as transparent as it was before, and yes, that does matter.

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