Roundup: Space to socialize

Amidst the growing buzz of MPs’ bad behaviour, whether it’s ejections from the House of Commons during QP, or the allegations of inappropriate comments at events as with James Bezan and Sherry Romanado, Kady O’Malley says that the presence of cameras hasn’t been a guarantor of good behaviour. And that’s fair enough. So what does she propose? Not to do away with the cameras, particularly in the Chamber itself, but rather creating the conditions by which MPs can spend more time together outside of the strictly partisan work situations.

More to the point, O’Malley suggests that MPs start sharing meal breaks, whether it’s in the cafeteria, or has been proposed earlier this session with a common space behind the Commons chamber where they can eat together rather than having the usual food services delivered to their respective lobbies on either side of the Chamber. It’s not a novel idea, given the fact that it was shared meals used to be a feature of how our parliament operated. Evening sittings happened three nights a week, and at the appointed hour, they would suspend debate, head upstairs to the Parliamentary Restaurant for a couple of hours and there was cross-pollination of socializing between the different parties. And lo and behold, when evening sittings were abolished in the name of being “family friendly,” collegiality between MPs took a hit.

The problem with simply creating a space behind the Commons for MPs to have that meal together is that it’s pretty much restricted to those who are stuck with House Duty, so the numbers at any given time would be pretty small, and I’m not sure that it’s enough to get a big the requisite sea change happening. Maybe the answer is to bring back evening sittings – it’s not like there’s a lack of legislation that could use the added time – but even there, part of what kept MPs at the parliamentary restaurant is that there was a dearth of other options in the area, which isn’t the case any longer. So while I don’t dispute that more opportunities for MPs to socialize is a good and necessary thing, I’m not sure that the conditions to make this a broader issue are really there any longer.

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Roundup: Embattled ministers sticking it out

With three cabinet ministers currently “embattled” (to various degrees), Aaron Wherry wondered about the drop-off in actual ministerial resignations, and found the comparison to the days of Brian Mulroney, who was far quicker to accept resignations than is customary these days. Mulroney came to regret this, mind you, but it can’t be denied that the demands for resignations have never left us, and in fact are pretty rote performance by this point. That the Conservatives made their demand for Bill Morneau’s resignation without any real damning evidence as to why it’s necessary has made it seem as unserious as it actually is, making it harder for them in the future to make a legitimate demand.

But with that having been said, I’m going to say that there’s something that Wherry has left out in his analysis, which is the way in which Cabinets are constructed is a different calculation now than it was in Mulroney’s day, and that matters. Back then, the dominant concern was federal construction, so while you had to ensure that you had enough ministers from certain regions, and some token diversity in terms of religious or cultural background, with a woman or two in the mix, it was easier to swap out white men for one another when it came to accepting resignations and replacing them. That’s not really the case right now. Trudeau’s pledge for a gender-balanced cabinet that is also regionally representative as well as diverse in terms of race and ethnicity means that there are far fewer options for replacing ministers when it comes time to either accepting resignations, or swapping them out for fresh blood. What that ends up doing is creating an incentive for a prime minister to stick by an “embattled” minister (though I’m not sure just how serious any of the allegations against any of the current ministers really is – the attacks against Morneau are largely baseless, while Lebouthillier has done her due diligence with regard to the AG’s report and has technically been correct in what she’s said regarding the disability tax credit; Hehr, meanwhile, has been chagrinned but I’m not sure there is a cardinal sin here in the grand scheme of things). Sure, there will be a few tough days in the media, but eventually, when there turns out to be nothing to what is being said, the storm passes. It passed with Harjit Sajjan and Maryam Monsef (who was given a promotion for sticking with the flaming bag of dog excrement that was the electoral reform file), and I’m pretty sure it’ll pass for the current three. Until Parliament itself is more diverse than it is now, the demands for a representative Cabinet means that there are fewer options available for a Prime Minister to accept a resignation. What it does mean, however, is that they need to get a bit better around communications and managing the issues that do come up, but also seems to be a recurring theme with this government.

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Roundup: Demands for MP parental leave

Some MPs are looking for changes to the Parliament of Canada Act in order to better accommodate parental leaves, given that they have no provision for them, and MPs start getting salaries clawed back if they miss more than 21 sitting days. (Mind you, records of those absences aren’t made public, so we have no way of checking). And while I’m sympathetic to the notion that there is no parental leave, I find myself sighing because there is this constant need by MPs and the press to describe Parliament as a “workplace,” and try and ham-fistedly force a number of hackneyed comparisons to justify it.

No. Parliament is not a “workplace.” And MPs most certainly are not employees.

I understand that it’s a job that’s not the friendliest for new parents. And I get that there is this desire to get younger voices into parliament, and there is a need to facilitate them, which is great. But I get very, very nervous every time MPs start talking about how they want to start changing things to make the place more “family friendly,” because every time they’ve done that to date, they’ve made things worse. Eliminating evening sittings to be more “family friendly” had a devastating effect on collegiality because MPs no longer ate together three nights a week. Now they’re looking to avoid coming to Ottawa altogether, instead appearing by videoconference instead, and no doubt they’ll demand to be able to vote remotely as well. And that is a bridge too far.

When you get elected, it’s to do the job in Ottawa. Work in the riding is secondary to your role as an MP, and that role is to hold government to account. Meeting constituents, while good small-p politics, is a secondary consideration to your duties. And the added danger in appearing remotely is not only a further breakdown in what remains of collegiality, it’s that the lack of facetime with other MPs and with witnesses who appear at committees means that there is no ability to forge connections or have off-script conversations, which are the lifeblood of politics. You need to show up to do the job. Your job is to be in Ottawa to vote and be seen voting, and to attend debate and committees. You knew that when you ran for office, and you knew that when you decided to have a child while in office. Trying to do this job remotely means that soon every MP will start to demand it, until the Commons is reduced to a small cadre of people there to fulfil quorum while everyone else attends to the “very important business” in their ridings.

The other point is that these MPs are not lacking in resources when it comes to finding childcare solutions – they are very well compensated, and can afford options that most Canadians can’t. That does matter in the equation, and why my sympathy has its limits.

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Roundup: Share sales and the sputtering outrage cycle

As the full-blown moral panic into what financial assets cabinet ministers own continues, we see the news that Bill Morneau has indeed sold off his shares in Morneau Shepell, for what it’s worth. Not that it will stop any of the chatter at this point – the outrage cycle continues to exhaust itself, and until some new outrage crops up, we’ll continue hearing about this as it sputters and runs on fumes.

And hey, why not find out what every other cabinet minister owns? The Star did, and I’m not really sure how edifying this whole exercise was in the end. Never mind that once again we’re reaching the point of absurdity with all of this. Are there problems with the ethics and conflict of interest legislation? Probably. Were loopholes identified previously? Yup. Did MPs do anything about it then? Nope. Do they really have an interest in closing any of them now? Probably not (and no, the NDP motion that the government voted down was not indicative of anything because it also contained a bunch of other stuff, as these things so often do, that was designed to embarrass Morneau and the government had they voted for it. Because in politics, we can’t have nice things). And once you add in all of the tall poppy nonsense, we’re left with the same tiresome moralizing that we’re always left with when it comes to “perceived” conflicts that aren’t actually there but which were invented out of whole cloth with the convenient lining up of “facts” that don’t pass the bullshit filter. And then we complain that nobody wants to get involved in politics.

Meanwhile, the Liberals are pointing out that Andrew Scheer has assets in Real Estate Limited Partnerships that are really only for the wealthy. Predictably, the Conservatives cite that he’s worth only a fraction of Morneau, and then cries of hypocrisy flew from both sides, and the outrage cycle continues to chug along.

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Roundup: The Speaker’s clock

The CBC has a video segment released today talking to Commons Speaker Geoff Regan about the countdown clock in the Commons when it comes to things like Question Period, and how he enforces the 35-second rule for questions and answers.

While it’s a nice video explanation, and demonstrates that Regan will allow a few seconds’ grace when necessary, it does go to demonstrate part of what isn’t functioning with the way we’re doing things like Question Period – or even regular debate, for that matter. By enforcing strict clocks, we’ve incentivised a culture of filling that space rather than it being an upper limit. Even in QP, where it’s a simple yes-of-no question, the temptation to fill all 35 seconds with canned talking points usually wins out (though the three-word yes-or-no Mr. Speaker replies do occasionally happen and make my day). Also, the 35 second clock encourages ministers to read replies in order to ensure that they stay within the limit rather than going over – and that tends to lead to a greater reliance on talking points than substantive answers.

As I’ve written about several times, I think this video is a demonstration as to why we need to loosen the clock. I’ve also witnessed in Senate QP where there is no defined clock, where you can get far more substantive questions and answers (though the Senate Speaker does need to reign them in a bit – some senators will speechify during a question, and sometimes the visiting minister will ramble). But loosening the clock and empowering the Speaker to better manage that time – along with a ban on scripts – will go a long way to improving the flow of debate in the Commons, rather than the farce that we have today.

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Roundup: The looming retirement of the Chief Justice

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin announced yesterday that she would be retiring on December 15th, a few months in advance of her mandatory retirement date, in order to give the government enough time to find a suitable replacement. Why that date is significant is because it will be at the end of the Court’s fall sitting, letting her use the next six months that she is able to clear off the files from her desk and work on any outstanding judgments rather than depart mid-sitting and the organizational chaos that would follow.

The next steps are now an important consideration. The government will not only have to name a new Chief Justice, but a new judge from Western Canada (and likely BC given that’s where McLachlin was appointed from). And in order to keep gender balance on the court it will likely have to be a woman, and in accordance with this government’s push for diversity, it will likely be a person of colour, if not someone Indigenous (and let us not forget that said person must also be fluently bilingual, which is another self-imposed criteria that this government has made for itself). This may be easier to find in BC than it was in Atlantic Canada, mind you. And for Chief Justice? My money is on Justice Richard Wagner, whom I know many close the court have already tapped as being the successor if they had their druthers.

Of course, we’ll see if this government can get an appointment process back up and running within the six months. Experience has shown us that they seem to have difficulty with that, especially as there are still some sixty or so federally appointed judicial vacancies still remaining around the country, and a few of the Judicial Advisory Committees charged with finding candidates for said vacancies still not fully appointed either, which is a problem. Of course, they may be able to largely reconstitute the committee that oversaw the nomination of Justice Rowe, with Kim Campbell again in charge of the process, but I guess we’ll see how long that takes.

For more reaction, here’s Emmett Macfarlane on As It Happens and in the Ottawa Citizen, and Carissima Mathen on Power Play.

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QP: Carbon taxes and foreign takeovers

On a sweltering day in Ottawa, things carried on as usual in the House of Commons. Andrew Scheer led off, railing about carbon taxes killing the manufacturing sector, never mind that in his Ontario example, it was a provincial carbon price. Justin Trudeau hit back with jibes that it was good to see that most of the aconservaties believed in the Paris Accords and that carbon pricing was good for the market. Scheer groused that they would meet the targets without a carbon price, before moving onto the Norsat sale and lack of a comprehensive security screening. Trudeau reminded him that they took the advice of national security agencies. Scheer took a second kick, needling that Trudeau admired Chinese dictatorship too much to care about national security, and Trudeau lashed back that partisan jibes like that were unworthy of this place. Denis Lebel was up next, demanding a non-partisan process to appoint parliamentary watchdogs, and Trudeau noted their new appointments and rattled off some of the diversity of the new reports. Lebel tried again in English, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking if the Der Spiegel article was true that the government was backing away from climate goals at the G20. Trudeau insisted that they have been climate leaders and pointed to examples. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau was unequivocal that he did not say what was in the article. Mulcair then turned to the issue of court cases involving First Nations children and dialled up the sanctimony to 11, and Trudeau noted the memorandum of understanding he signed with the AFN this morning about moving forward on steps. Mulcair demanded that the NDP bill on UNDRIP be adopted, but Trudeau insisted they were moving forward in consultation (never mind that said bill is almost certainly of dubious constitutionality).

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Roundup: An unconstitutional motion

As stated for their upcoming Supply Day motion (currently scheduled for Monday, the Conservatives have drafted a resolution that would see the House of Commons express non-confidence in Minister Sajjan and Minister Sajjan alone. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to bash my head into a wall before my head explodes because it’s so very boneheaded from start to finish.

First of all, you should read this post by James Bowden, who takes apart the motion to and shows that it is unconstitutional. What is more interesting is the fact that the NDP tried this tactic before when Rona Ambrose was minister of the environment, and the Speaker ruled it out of order then, just as Speaker Regan should this time. Why? Because one of the fundamental tenets of Responsible Government is that of Cabinet solidarity. Cabinet lives and dies as a single body – there is no dispensation given to ministers we like, or to simply cull the prime minister from the rest of them in these kinds of votes. It’s an important feature of why the system works the way it does, and trying to cherry pick it for the sake of political tactics makes one a bit queasy because this is our very system of government that we’re talking about and they should bloody well know better.

Look, I get that they’re trying to exploit what they see as low-hanging fruit with Sajjan, but along the way, they’ve been dangerously blurring the lines of civil-military relations by asserting that the troops want him gone (do they aside from a few cranks? Never mind that it’s not these soldiers’ call), and by referencing Sajjan’s actions in military terms rather than political ones. Trying to use the term “stolen valour” is also offensive, not only because it’s generally reserved for someone who dons a uniform or medals without having been in combat (which is not the case with Sajjan), but because they’re co-opting it from the military for political benefit. But now they’re trying to go against the fundamentals of Responsible Government to score what they hope will be a cheap win.

That Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is trying to burn the system to the ground to score a couple of points is a very serious problem, and one indicative of a party that is more focused on populist spin than they are in being principled. It’s  a disturbing pattern, and one that they should knock off before they go too far down this garden path.

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Roundup: The phantom lobbying menace

You can already hear the grumblings over social media over the headline: “As senators become more independent, meetings with lobbyists hoping to take advantage tripled in 2016.” And immediately most people go “Ooh, lobbyists are bad, so this sounds like a terrible thing.” It’s not actually true, but it’s something we’re probably going to have to unpack a little better rather than cause some mass panic (once again) about how the newly “empowered” Senate is going to be the death knell for democracy in this country, or some other such nonsense.

For starters, not all lobbying is bad. With strict rules in this country around reporting and gifts, this isn’t like the free-for-all that we’ve seen in places like Washington, where lobbyists were meeting with Congressmen in the steam room of the Capitol Hill gym, or taking them on private plane rides and giving them holidays, or showing up on the floor of the House to watch them cast votes, all while funnelling money into their re-election campaigns. While I believe they tightened some of those rules down south, we simply don’t have that kind of lobbying culture here in Canada, so get that out of your minds first of all. Secondly, Senators in Canada don’t have re-election campaigns to finance, so the influence that lobbyists can try to gain with financial incentives of one variety or another are also non-existent here, so once again, don’t try to map an Americanism onto the process here. Third, lobbying is not all corporate influence. A lot of lobbyists represent charities or non-profits, so best to keep that in mind when you see the numbers grouped together.

Meanwhile, as for what they hope to achieve, well, remember that despite the newfound “independence” of the Senate, its powers are still fairly limited. Those hoping to use this newfound power to amend more bills or delay others will find that when it comes to any amendments, they would still need to be accepted by the House of Commons, and there has been very little acceptance so far of most amendments sent back by the Senate unless it’s a glaring error. And as for delays, if it’s a government bill there are tools like time allocation and closure to force them through the system. Just because Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” – Senator Peter Harder hasn’t yet availed himself of those tools doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. So really, your mileage with how effective lobbying efforts will be will certainly vary.

The uptick in lobbying is not unexpected now that the usual central channels for information flow have been disrupted. That’s to be expected, so this increase is hardly nefarious. I’m more concerned with cabinet ministers lobbying individual senators than I am actual lobbyists, to be honest, since those meetings are less open and transparent, and they have a lot more power to grant political favours. So really, let’s stay calm about this headline, but keep an eye on things nevertheless. Trudeau’s plans for a “more independent” Senate are certainly proving the rule around unintended consequences.

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QP: Vote for my bill

Despite being in town (and just having a completed a call with the White House), Justin Trudeau was absent for QP today, for which I will scowl. Thomas Mulcair was still away as well, part of the GG’s state visit to Sweden, leaving only Rona Ambrose the only major leader present. She led off, trolling for support for her private member’s bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges — something that is not asking about the administrative responsibilities of the government. Jody Wilson-Raybould said that it was an important topic and that she would review the bill as it came to the Commons. After another round of asking in French and repeating the answer in English, Ambrose raised the case of Justin Bourque to demand that consecutive sentencing laws remain in place. Wilson-Raybould reminded her that they are conducting a broad-based review, and that there are already the highest mandatory penalties on the books for murder. Ambrose asked about that Chinese company that bought that nursing home chain and wondered if they figured out the ownership yet, but Navdeep Bains repeated this assurances from yesterday about the review of the sale. Ambrose finished off her round asking about the government refusing to release information on their carbon price cost projections, and Catherine McKenna reminded her that there are also costs for not tackling climate change. Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, spinning a small conspiracy theory about fundraising by the chairman of Apotex, for which Bardish Chagger reminded her that the Lobbying Commissioner found nothing amiss. Karine Trudel asked the same in French, got the same answer, and then spun another question about the government’s ethics, and Chagger reiterated her same points. Nathan Cullen then railed about the government caring only about billionaires and not average Canadians, and Chagger chastised him for ignoring the ways in which the government has been listening to Canadians.

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