Roundup: The perverse state of party leaders

Amid a bunch of bad puns by headline writers yesterday, seven out of ten Bloc MPs quit caucus because they can’t work with their leader, Martine Ouellet. Her demands that they push sovereignty above all else rankled too many, who felt their jobs as MPs were to represent Quebec’s interests in Ottawa boiled over, and they left to sit as a quasi-independent caucus (insisting that they still, deep down, belong to the Bloc) for the time being. It’s a move that some recall as being similar to when a number of Alliance MPs walked out of their caucus over dissatisfaction with Stockwell Day’s leadership, and they never really came back until the whole Conservative Party unification happened and Stephen Harper became leader.

This point that Coyne makes is exactly right. If things were running the way they should, someone from caucus would be the leader, and it would be the caucus selecting him or her, not the membership, and it would be the caucus who removes him or her. If Ouellet had an ounce of shame, she’d resign in the face of this revolt (as bad leaders like Alison Redford did once a mere two MLAs went public). But things are not running well. Rheal Fortin, the party’s former interim leader, went on Power Play and yet didn’t say that she should step down which is insane (though Gilles Duceppe did). Parties don’t serve leaders – leaders should serve the party. MPs shouldn’t be drones to serve a popularly elected leader, with all of the initiative of a battle droid. This perverse state of affairs is poisoning our parliamentary democracy, and it should stop. Ouellet should resign and mind her own affairs in the legislature that she already has a seat in, rather than trying to straddle both, and the Bloc should just choose a leader from their own ranks – Fortin was already doing the job, no reason he can’t go back to doing it.

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Roundup: Reheated economic policy

Andrew Scheer came out with his first economic policy plank yesterday, and it was pretty much a tepid reheated policy of the Harper era that plans to be packed into a private members’ bill at some point this parliament. The idea is a “tax credit” for parental EI benefits – because Harper-era Conservatives loved nothing more than tax credits, and tax credits are the loophole in private members’ bills that let them spend money without actually spending money, because the rationale is that they’re reducing income rather than raising revenue, but if I had my druthers, I would see that loophole closed because a tax expenditure impacts the treasury just as much as an actual spending programme does. Add to that, tax credits are generally not tracked by the Department of Finance, so their ongoing impact is not reported to Parliament, nor is their effectiveness really tracked either – and yes, there is an Auditor General’s report from a couple of years ago that states this very problem with them.

And add to that, this announcement is yet another sop to the suburban family voter that the Conservatives want to try to recapture from the Liberals. Of course, like most of the plans of the Harper era, the tax credit structure doesn’t actually help a lot of the families who need it, and the benefits tend to go towards those who make more money in the first place, which one suspects is why the Liberals’ Canada Child Benefit was seen as a more advantageous plan to that same voting demographic that Scheer wants to target. And don’t take my word for it – here’s Kevin Milligan and Jennifer Robson to walk you through why this isn’t a well though-out plan from an economic or policy standpoint.

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Roundup: Hehr out of cabinet

In the hours that the drama around Patrick Brown was playing out, another accusation was levelled over Twitter, this time around Liberal cabinet minister Kent Hehr, which seems mostly to involve lewd suggestions he made to female staffers in private during his time as an MLA in Alberta. When news of that reached Davos, Justin Trudeau said he would follow-up and have an answer before they left the country. And just before the plane took off, we had our answer – Hehr had tendered his resignation from cabinet, and during his “leave of absence,” Kirsty Duncan would take over his responsibilities while an investigation was carried out. Hehr remains in caucus, no doubt pending the results of that investigation. Maclean’s spoke with Hehr’s accuser here.

Politically, it’s fraught for Trudeau given that both of his Calgary MPs – both of them veterans of the Alberta Liberal Party – have been taken down by allegations of sexual misconduct. And in a related story, the investigation promised into Kang’s actions has not contacted one of his accusers, however many months later, and that goes for both federal and provincial investigations.

Speaking of Brown, here’s a detailed look at how Wednesday night played out, and some further conversations with his accusers. One of Brown’s (former) deputy leaders called the incident a “hiccup,” and later had to apologize for it.

Meanwhile, Supriya Dwivedi talks about politics’ #metoo moment, and the fact that the Bro Code is breaking down, while Aaron Wherry talks about how #metoo has arrived on Parliament Hill. Chris Selley looks at the path ahead for the Ontario PC party in Brown’s demise, and it’s a messy path given the rules in the party’s constitution, with just four months to go before the election.

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Roundup: Draft climate legislation revealed

The government unveiled their draft legislation for carbon pricing mechanisms, largely as the backstop for those provinces whose governments are toeing the agreed-upon line, and it includes both pricing incentives for those who can get 30 percent below the national standards, as well as the ability for the federal government to directly reimburse individuals for their carbon payments rather than just returning it all to provincial coffers and letting the provincial government figure it out.

Energy economists Andrew Leach and Trevor Tombe dig into the announcements a bit more.

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Roundup: Turning down the committee

It was pretty much as expected. The Commons ethics committee met yesterday and the opposition MPs assembled pleaded with the Liberal majority on the committee to think of the children – err, I mean, think about the meaning of holding the government to account when it came to the demand to call for the PM to appear to answer questions about the Ethics Commissioner’s findings regarding his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island. I will grant that the Liberals could have insisted that they go in camera for this, but didn’t. Rather, they simply said that, having read the report, and taking into account that the PM had apologised, answered questions in the media, and would be answering questions in QP on this topic, that it was enough. And so the motion was defeated 6-3, which surprised no one.

From the arguments presented, there is a little more that we could dig into. For example, Nathan Cullen said he wanted the PM’s suggestions on how to improve the rules – but if he cared about those, he would have taken the many suggestions that Mary Dawson has been making over the past decade and implemented those, but he, nor his party, nor any parliamentarian, has been keen to do that. And his worrying that the PM is ultimately accountable to parliament is true, but that ultimately means that if Cullen is so concerned, he can move a motion of non-confidence in the PM on the NDP’s next Supply Day and try to convince the Liberal ranks of the merits of his argument. As for the Conservatives, they seemed far more interested in seeing some grovelling the PM, and demanding that he repay the full cost of the trip (which would include the Challenger and security costs), never mind that during the Harper era, his “reimbursement” for his own private trips was supposed to be at economy fares, but nobody could find fares as low as the ones he was repaying (and there were several incidents of party stalwarts getting subsidized airfare improperly). And that whole incident nearly six years ago when they wanted Harper to appear to answer questions on the ClusterDuff Affair? Well, that was then and this is now, and Trudeau promised to be more open and transparent. (Err, remember when Stephen Harper rode into office on the white horse of accountability and transparency? Yeah, me neither).

And while opposition staffers chirp at my on the Twitter Machine about how it’s the role of MPs to hold the government to account – true – and that a committee setting is less theatrical than QP – not true – I will reiterate that the point of this exercise is not actually about accountability, but rather about gathering media clips under the protection of parliamentary privilege. If you think there would be sober questions asked, and that this would be a serious exercise in accountability, then you’re sorely mistaken. It remains a political calculus, and Trudeau has determined that it’s not worth it to spend an hour having the most torqued accusations hurled at him in the hopes that something sticks, and hoping for that “gold” clip that they can share around social media. If we’re going to lament the lack of accountability, then everyone needs to take a share of responsibility there – not just the PM.

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Roundup: Morneau cleared – mostly

On her way out the door, now-former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released a statement saying that there was no ethics issue or conflicts of interest with Bill Morneau’s share sales, which blows the hysterical arguments about “insider trading” out of the water. As well they should be – these claims were never serious to begin with, and were part of the attempt to throw everything at the wall in the hopes that something, anything, would stick. This of course leaves the “investigation” into Morneau introducing Bill C-27 on pension reform while he still indirectly held those Morneau Shepell shares, and the opposition are still waving their hands around this and trying to insist that this is some kind of Major Ethical Issue, never mind that the allegations themselves depend on a fundamental misunderstanding with how ministers sponsor bills, and ignoring the fact that clearing bills with the Ethics Commissioner before they are tabled would be a violation of cabinet confidence and parliamentary privilege. But hey, we’ve already established that we don’t need plausibility or facts to get in the way of laying allegations – it’s simply about trying to build a “narrative” by whatever means necessary.

Meanwhile in Maclean’s, Paul Wells has a lengthy interview with Morneau about how his last six months have gone, and it’s a good read. The major takeaway in all of this is that Morneau and the cabinet got complacent after a string of successes, where they managed to get some pretty big wins despite initial grumbles from provinces around things CPP reform or healthcare premiums. The fact that they shopped those planned changes to private corporation tax rules several times and got no pushback meant that they let their guards down, and then with a combination of misrepresentation around what those changes were, and reporting that didn’t question those narratives, Morneau wound up blindsided, which was compounded by his dislike of being scrappy enough to respond to allegations and mistruths forcefully. One hopes that he’ll have learned his political lessons and that he’ll start stepping up a little sooner – and communicating better – but time will tell.

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Roundup: Ethics committee theatre incoming

We can look forward to a heap of bad political theatre next week as the Commons’ ethics committee plans to sit on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to demand that the PM appear before them to answer questions in regards to the Ethics Commissioner’s report into his Xmas vacation with the Aga Khan, and to hear from the now-former Commissioner on the report the following day. And you can expect that it’s going to be nothing short of howls of sanctimonious indignation. Oh, and there may be legitimate procedural roadblocks to their plans given that the report hasn’t been presented to the Commons yet, according to a former Commons procedural clerk.

Regarding the demands that Trudeau appear, it would be highly unlikely that the Liberals on the committee will let that go ahead (and they have the votes to block it if necessary). And if the Conservatives cry foul, they can turn around and point to the fact that they blocked an attempt by the committee in the last Parliament to have Stephen Harper appear before them to answer questions related to the ClusterDuff Affair, and fair is fair, besides which, Trudeau has answered in Question Period and the media on this issue. And really, why would a PM expose himself to an hour of MPs trying to play Matlock, asking questions that are all traps designed to get him to incriminate himself, and then baying at the moon when he refuses to answer. It would be worse than the performances we see in Question Period these days (which are generally terrible), and we’d get the same quality of answers from Trudeau, which will be some fairly pat and trite lines unless they trip him up (which is the whole point).

Oh, one might say (and Althia Raj did on Power & Politics last night), if they want to show that this is really a new era of accountability and transparency, they it might be in their best interests to go ahead and have him go before the committee, to which I remind people what happened when Thomas Mulcair appeared before a committee to answer questions related to the satellite offices issue. Mulcair blustered, obfuscated, and then proffered a fiction that Conservatives did it too (they didn’t – the “evidence” was a riding office and a party office in the same mini-mall but several doors down from one another, but hey, they were on the same sign by the parking lot), and as he did so, all of his partisans flooded social media praising that “this is what accountability looks like.” I’m not really sure that this is the kind of thing we want to revisit.

As for Dawson’s appearance, it’s “as an individual” since she will be officially retired by then, and we can imagine that it will be much the same – each side fishing for a media clip that fits their established narrative, which they will then flood social media with – assuming that she can answer, given the procedural issue identified. And we can imagine how many questions about Bill Morneau will be asked, followed by the Liberals asking how many investigations she conducted on Conservative ministers, and on and on it will go. It won’t be a constructive use of anyone’s time, but why does that matter when you’ve got cheap political theatre to perform?

Speaking of Dawson, here’s her exit interview with the Globe and Mail in which she defends how much time she took to write that report, confirms that she didn’t discuss Bill C-27 with Morneau (never mind that doing so would violate cabinet confidence and cabinet secrecy – funny how the Globe continually ignores that fact), and defends the advice she gave to Morneau about a blind trust (“You know what the hell’s in there. That’s a defect on a blind trust”).

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Roundup: On Scheer’s tolerance

It’s been a day since the Globe and Mail interview with Andrew Scheer came out, and yet I haven’t been able to shake some of what he says in the piece, particularly about how his is supposedly the more “tolerant” party. In it, Scheer lists a couple of areas where he lists the virtues of his party’s tolerance – for anti-abortionist views, and his curious view about how to deal with the LGBT question with a party that welcomes social conservatives. On the former, Scheer used the opportunity to re-litigate the issue of trying to appoint Rachael Harder to the chair of the Status of Women committee (never mind that the committees are supposed to pick their own chairs, and that it made no sense to put the critic in the chair position, since the chair is ostensibly supposed to be neutral, which your critic should not be). Why is this example salient? Because it was an example of Scheer acting like a Dollarama knock-off brand provocateur, trying to deliberately set off the leftist opponents to demonstrate how intolerant lefties are in the style that the alt-right has become so fond of doing. Just because your party’s values include social conservatism doesn’t make you more tolerant, particularly given how they denounce other small-l liberal values as “virtue signalling” and so on. Having different values is why different political parties exist.

The part that stuck in my craw a little more was Scheer insisting that just because he doesn’t want to march in a Pride parade, it doesn’t mean that he’s not supportive, pointing to his motion to condemn Russia for the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya, and the fact that he supported the apology to those persecuted LGBT Canadians. What gets me is that he’s patting himself on the back for the bare minimum – that people don’t deserve to die or be persecuted. But what this does is miss the difference between equality on paper, and substantive equality, and this is something that the Conservative government seemed to struggle with as well. We don’t want other countries to kill gays, but we won’t do anything to meaningfully advance their equality, so they can stay second-class citizens. Or as I sometimes darkly muse, why kill the gays outright when your systematic marginalizing of them drives them to depression, addiction, and suicide instead? And to make it clear, Scheer’s language of “tolerance” is just that – being seen to tolerate something that much of his party’s base finds distasteful, and tolerance is a far cry from respect. So you’ll forgive me if I find Scheer’s assurances that he is “supportive” to ring entirely hollow, because that’s not the language or actions of support.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail’s editorial board did call out Scheer for his contradictions in that interview, questioning whether he really is the right person for the job.

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Roundup: No, the Senate can’t fire Lynn Beyak

After another week of sustained outrage about Senator Lynn Beyak, with mounting calls for her resignation, and the exasperated commentary of those Indigenous groups that have tried to educate her as to the reality of the situation that Beyak has seen fit to comment upon, we’ve also started to see articles speculating on ways that the Senate can be rid of her. Those suggestions would be a grievous mistake.

We can all agree that what Beyak has said is odious in the extreme. But the performative outrage that she should be expelled from the Senate does cross a line because as much as we all disagree with Beyak, she hasn’t broken any laws or violated any ethics rules. She may have views that are on their face racist (though she probably doesn’t see them that way – the Conservative senators that I’ve spoken to pretty much consider her a clueless Pollyanna figure who nevertheless has deeply held Christian beliefs that inform her particularly selective world view), but those views are neither illegal nor contrary to the rules of the Senate. And we should be wary of trying to regulate Senators’ speech, because that is a gross violation of parliamentary privilege. We also can’t ignore that Beyak gives voice to an ignorant segment of the population, and when she raises these views publicly, she has given rise to a debate that such a segment of the population isn’t usually exposed to. Simply demanding her removal for it is hugely problematic for all manner of reasons.

Now, the Conservative caucus has taken the steps to minimize her role as much as possible – she is off all committees, and thus marginalized from having any position of influence. Why she remains in caucus is likely because they want to maintain their plurality in the chamber for as long as possible, and with ten current vacancies (and a couple more pending), that will likely change in the coming weeks, but for now, they are looking to maintain their numbers, and Beyak’s remaining in caucus does that for them, however they’ve sidelined her. And once the Independent Senators Group forms the plurality, the Conservatives’ impetus to keep her may change, but they may also hope that she can be redeemed, as it were, with more education (and perhaps a dose of humility). Maybe. Or, this could be an early sign of trying to phase her out, where there can still be some modicum of caucus control over her actions rather than simply turning her loose, which might actually embolden her (because then she’ll be a martyr for the cause). But let’s hope that this is the Senate’s version of phasing her out.

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Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.

For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.

Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).

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