Roundup: Protected nominations and the suffocation of the grassroots

Oh, Liberals. You’ve really gone and done it again, haven’t you? All of your grand talk about respecting parliament, and now you’ve decided that you’re going to go and protect the nominations of your incumbent MPs, so long as they meet a set of criteria that, while better than nothing, is not all that onerous. Never mind that four years ago, it was all about how open nominations were about community leaders devoted to community service, but now? Now it’s about ensuring that your MPs simply have a big enough war chest and participate in a bare minimum of door knocking over the course of a year. You’d think that with this list of requirements, ensuring that there still remains an actual nomination process wouldn’t be too difficult – after all, if the excuse is that they’re so busy in Ottawa that they can’t be also running for their old jobs, then ensuring that they’re still doing the work that would be associated with a nomination process seems like a pointless self-inflicted black eye, no?

I’m not going to re-litigate this too much, but I wrote about why protected nominations are a Bad Thing in Maclean’s last year, but it really boils down to one basic concept – accountability. The biggest reason to ensure that there are open nominations is to ensure that a riding can hold their incumbent to account without needing to vote for another party to do so. Protecting nominations removes more power from the grassroots party members and enshrines it in the leader’s office, which is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. (And yes, Trudeau has centralized a hell of a lot of power, especially after pushing through the changes to the party’s constitution). And by imposing those thresholds to ensure that the nomination is protected, it creates incentive for the incumbent MP to treat that riding association like a personal re-election machine, rather than a body that holds that MP to account at the riding level.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Liberal problem. The Conservatives also set a fairly high bar to challenge incumbent nominations, some of which we’ve seen in recent weeks, but that’s been accompanied by rumblings that some of these challenges have been stickhandled out of the leader’s office, which is even more distressing for grassroots democracy. The erosion of grassroots democracy is a very real crisis in our political system, but most people don’t understand what these changes mean, more content to chide the Liberals for broken promises about open nominations than be alarmed at what the bigger picture result is. It’s a pretty serious problem, and it’s bigger than just a broken promise.

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Roundup: On leaders, interim or “parliamentary”

In the wake of the Patrick Brown resignation, the Ontario PC caucus gathered behind closed doors to name Vic Fedeli as their “parliamentary leader,” a term that irks me to no end. Fedeli came out and called himself “party leader” rather than “interim” or “parliamentary,” clearly signalling that he wanted this to be permanent going into the election, but within hours, the party insisted that they would indeed hold a full leadership contest to be concluded by March 31st, where the party membership would vote on a leader (and yes, Fedeli will be running while still acting as the interim/“parliamentary” leader).

The adoption of the term “parliamentary leader” is recent, and as far as I know was only first used by the NDP to give a name to what Guy Caron is doing as Jagmeet Singh’s proxy inside the Commons while Singh refuses to get his own seat, and generally avoids being in Ottawa as much as possible. Caron is left to be the de facto leader, even going so far as to make key decisions around staffing in the leader’s office in Ottawa, which would seem to make him de jure leader as well and Singh to be some kind of figurehead, wandering the land. But why it’s offensive as a concept is because it attempts to normalize this notion that the leader isn’t in the parliamentary caucus – something that is an affront to our Westminster system. The Ontario PC party using this term both affirms the use of this term, and opens up the notion of a similar arrangement where a new leader could be chosen by the membership while not having a seat, further taking us down this road to debasing our system.

Mike Moffatt, meanwhile, has the right idea – all leaders should be considered “interim,” because they should be able to be removed at a moment’s notice by the caucus (given that the caucus should select the leader, and that the leader should live in fear of the caucus). What happens instead with electing leaders by the membership is that they feel they have a sense of “democratic legitimacy,” which they feel insulates them from accountability, and they wield their imagined authority over the caucus, meaning that it’s the caucus who has to fear the leader instead of the other way around – especially if the rules persist that the leader signs their nomination papers. That’s not the way our system was designed to function, and it’s caused great damage to our system, and it gets worse as time goes on, with each iteration trying to turn it more and more into a quasi-presidential primary. The way the Ontario PC party has had to deal with this Patrick Brown situation within the context of their bastardized rules (and fetishizing the 200,000 members signed up in their last leadership contest, the bulk of them by Brown and his team) is utterly debasing to Westminster parliaments. More than anything, the events of the past week should be an object lesson in why we should restore caucus selection, should anyone be listening.

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Roundup: Appointment backlog woes

The National Post has a really good piece looking into the current backlog of appointments and the effect it’s having on the functioning of government. It’s something that has been talked about a lot, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good breakdown of those vacancies, and the effect that it’s having. It’s one of those subjects that sounds pretty easy to grumble about, but it’s also something that we should take a step back and realise that to a certain extent, the goals of reforming the appointments process has been laudable, and in many cases, overdue when it comes to increasing the level of diversity into these positions. Over the course of my reporting, a lot of civil society actors have praised the move (while still being concerned at the timeframe it took for getting the processes up and running) because they all know that the outcomes will inevitably be better over the longer term now that the bulk of positions aren’t simply being filled by straight white men.

That said, I also wanted to just put a bit of additional context around some of this backlog in saying that as much as the Conservatives are baying at the moon about some of these appointments right now, that they were no saints when it came to this sort of thing either, and reformed the appointment process for some of these positions themselves, creating massive backlogs in the process. The two that come to mind immediately are the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they took a functioning system and drove it to dysfunction when they changed that process to “de-politicise it” (with plenty of accusations that they just made the system easier to put their own cronies in) and turning a system where the optimal number of files was churning through into a massive backlog that they tried to blame their predecessors on (sound familiar?). The other was the Social Security Tribunal, which they completely revamped as part of their changes to the system overall, and I’m not sure it ever got fixed before they lost the election, only for the Liberals to turn around to reform the appointment process yet again. So yes, some of the backlogs are bad, but in some cases, ‘twas ever thus, and we should keep that in mind.

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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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