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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Roundup: Neglecting a vital institution

Of the things that vex me about our current government, their tacit endorsement of republican sentiment in this country is high on my list. The fact that they have allowed the Conservatives to take up and politicise the monarchist space in the Canadian landscape is shameful, and the fact that they have allowed the position of Canadian Secretary to the Queen to lapse is just one more sign of this particular antipathy. For all that he professes his affection for Her Majesty, Justin Trudeau seems to have a pretty difficult time reflecting that in his government’s particular decisions, and we will pay the price for it. That the work of arranging royal tours and being the link to Buckingham Palace is being left to the bureaucrats in Canadian Heritage is not a good thing. Everything I have heard about the job they do is not only that they are plagued with incompetence when it comes to the actual work of dealing with the Canadian Monarchy, but the tacit acknowledgement of my sources that those very bureaucrats charged with the responsibility are themselves republicans is hugely problematic. That they are the ones offering advice to the government is a very big problem. And that Trudeau appears to be neglecting this very important relationship is worrying. I know that there are monarchist Liberals in the ranks, and I hope very much that they can start to raise a fuss about this, because it’s a very worrying road that we are now on, and this kind of neglect can do lasting damage to our most fundamental institution, which we should all be very concerned about.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had an exit interview with Governor General David Johnston, and brought up the issue of debating abolishing the monarchy. Johnston, bless him, pointed out that the countries that most satisfy the needs of their people tend to be constitutional monarchies, so we’ve got that going for us.

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Roundup: Renewing the tax change battle

Those proposed tax changes around private corporations were big in the news again yesterday, given that Parliament had returned and there was a sense that the fight was about to begin in earnest, now that everyone was paying attention. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation hired a plane to fly a banner above Parliament Hill that read “No Small Biz Tax Hike,” never mind that the small business tax rate isn’t being raised and that the proposed changes aren’t going to affect the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses. Before the fight got started in earnest during QP, the NDP tried to insert themselves into the debate by trying to insist that the government should instead be attacking the “tax cheats” who use offshore tax havens – which, it must be pointed out, are also using legal instruments and thus are not actually “tax cheats” either, which is language that doesn’t help anyone.

In the Law Times, I have a story on how some lawyers are angry with the Canadian Bar Association over their opposition to the proposed tax changes – something that garnered a fair bit of attention. Global tried to work out what some of those tax changes amount to in terms of how it benefits those able to use the current provisions (though their use of the term “loopholes” rankled some of the economists they quoted). Colby Cosh takes on the semantic warfare in the proposed tax change debate.

And then the Twitter battles were renewed in earnest as well. Lisa Raitt was back at it, but Andrew Coyne took on her points with particular aplomb to show why they didn’t have any particular logic or intenral consistency.

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Roundup: Time allocation’s a-coming

Getting people worked up over the weekend was the revelation that Government House Leader Barish Chagger had sent a letter to her opposition counterparts noting that she planned to use time allocation a little more often this fall, in order to help get the government’s agenda through (with the note that things were taking longer in the Senate as a consequence of some of the changes there). And immediately, a number of pundits got upset with the whole notion, because Trudeau was supposed to be different, and time allocation is a great evil that’s used to “clamp down” on debate, and so on.

Let me be the first to remind you that in and of itself, time allocation isn’t all that bad if used responsibly. Part of why it became a big issue in the last election was because the Conservatives – and most especially then-Government House Leader Peter Van Loan – used it for everything under the sun, because they were inept at House management, and they had so abused things like omnibus legislation that the whole legislative process itself had largely broken down, hence why it became necessary to schedule by means of time allocation. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t responsible, but it got done.

Part of our problem is that all parties in this country have lost our ability to manage our debates. One of the most pressing examples is with Second Reading debate, where it’s supposed to be about the general principle of a bill – is it a good idea or not – and that’s it. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon, but no. Instead, we have to speechify into the record, and for some reason insist that on routine bills, take days for “is this a good idea or not” debate. More time should be spent at committee, but that’s often where we have been clamping down even further, because apparently, we need more terrible, scripted speeches being written into the record that aren’t debate. The logical result of this broken system of debate is that time allocation becomes a more regular feature because we’re no longer actually debating, we’re speechifying. So if we don’t want to see the government resort to time allocation, then maybe we need to start thinking meaningfully about fixing our broken debate practices so that our debate actually have meaning again. But that may be too novel of a suggestion.

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Roundup: Arnold Chan and his parliamentary legacy

News was delivered yesterday morning that Liberal MP Arnold Chan has succumbed to cancer and passed away earlier that morning. The news is a blow for Parliament, as Chan was a very decent and well-liked MP who was serious about the dignity of the institution. Back in June, he delivered a speech in Parliament that was viewed at the time as a bit of a farewell (which he insisted that it wasn’t), in which he implored that his fellow MPs not only demonstrate their love of Parliament, but that they demonstrate it by doing things like ending the reliance on talking points.

At the time that Chan made the speech, I wrote a column about its importance, and why more MPs should heed his words. Scripts and talking points have been suffocating our parliament and our very democracy, and it gets worse as time goes on. That Chan could see their inherent problems and try to break the cycle is encouraging, because it hopefully means that other MPs will too. It’s one of the reasons why I hope that as part of honouring Chan’s legacy, MPs will work to do away with the rules in the Commons that have led to the rise of canned speeches, and that we can get to a place where debate is no longer a series of speeches read into the record without actual exchanges, and where MPs actually become engaged in the material rather than just reading the points that their leaders’ offices handed their assistants to write up for them. Parliament should be more than that, and let’s hope that others follow Chan’s lead.

Here are some more remembrances of Chan by his colleagues.

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Roundup: Media as government whip

The fact that a couple of Liberal backbenchers are expressing reservations about the government’s proposed tax changes to private corporations has journalists salivating about caucus divisions – again.

Never mind that we’ve seen several examples of MPs going against the government in this current parliament – sometimes en masse (like with the genetic privacy bill), and time after time, Justin Trudeau doesn’t rise to the bait, and yet We The Media continue to try to make an issue out of it. Never mind that backbenchers holding their own government to account is how things are supposed to work in a Westminster system, because that’s their job as MPs, the media tends to remain focused on this narrative that all MPs should be in lockstep with their leadership, especially when they form government. No. That’s not true at all. And yet, Power & Politics spent several blocks on this very notion, especially with the interview with MP Wayne Long (not that there was sufficient pushback against Long’s positions, especially because lower tax rates for self-incorporation are not supposed to be a reward for risk, nor did his assertions about these tax rates being responsible for the current economic growth make any logical sense). What was notable in the eyes of the producers was that a government MP was going against the grain, and that needs to be An Issue.

As for Bill Morneau, he seems to have finally clued in that his communications plan for these changes has been nothing short of an omnishambles and is promising better information out this fall as consultations wrap up, but it’s almost too late at this point, considering the loads of utter nonsense coming out from the business community and how much traction it’s getting.

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Roundup: Making a martyr of herself

If there’s one thing that we’re talking about right now that’s not the interminable Standing Orders debate, it’s Senator Lynn Beyak, of the “well intentioned residential schools” remarks, which came shortly after her incomprehensible remarks about trans people while saying that good gays don’t like to cause waves. And after being removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee, she put out a press release that didn’t really help her cause.

Of course, the more we talk about Beyak in the media and demand that Something Must Be Done about her, the more it’s going to embolden her and her supporters. The fact that she’s starting to martyr herself on the cause of “opposing political correctness” is gaining her fans, including Maxime Bernier, whom she is supporting in the leadership. Bernier says he doesn’t agree with her statement about residential schools, but he’s all aboard her “political correctness” martyrdom. Oh, and it’s causing some of the other Conservative senators to close ranks around her, because that’s what starts to happen when someone on their team is being harassed (and before you say anything, my reading of Senator Ogilvie’s “parasites” comment was more dark humour in the face of this situation than anything, and reporters taking to the Twitter Machine to tattle and whinge makes We The Media look all the worse).

But seriously, Beyak is not an important figure. She’s marginal at best within her own party, and her comments have marginalized her position further. But the more that people continue to howl about her, or post e-petitions demanding that the government remove her (which is unconstitutional, by the way), the more she turns herself into a martyr on this faux-free speech platform that is attracting all manner of right-wing trolls, the more she will feel completely shameless about her words. We’ve shone the spotlight, but sometimes we also need to know when to let it go and let obscurity reclaim her.

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Roundup: Not another special committee

And so the filibuster over potential changes to the Standing Orders rolls on, with no end in sight. Opposition House leaders presented an open letter yesterday calling for a new special committee to examine the issue with an eye to ensuring that it only comes out with recommendations achieved by consensus, but I’m not sure how bright of an idea that really is. After all, they’ll demand that it be composed in a similar manner to the Electoral Reform committee (to be faux-“proportional” and to get buy-in from the Bloc and Elizabeth May, naturally), and they’ll spend months and months hearing all kinds of expert testimony about how great parliamentary or legislative rules are in other countries only to doubtlessly come up with some the same kind of non-consensus that the ERRE report did, that every party will walk away from.

Bardish Chagger isn’t backing down, incidentally, and keeps insisting she wants a dialogue but won’t commit to consensus, probably because a) the committee look into making the Commons more “family friendly” wound up being a bust – which is for the best, really; and b) because she wants to try and fulfil the half-baked election promise about doing some kind of parliamentary reform, never mind that no reform is actually necessary of the kind that she’s proposing (with the exception of restoring prorogation ceremonies – that one we do need).

But I will reiterate yet again that our problem is cultural. Looking at rule changes won’t fix the underlying cultural problems, and this will be just another months-long waste of time when what all parties need to be doing is getting back to the core of Westminster parliamentarianism, and doing the sensible things of banning scripts and speaking lists, throwing out the time limits that obligate MPs to fill the time rather than engaging in spontaneous debate, and actually taking the legislative process seriously, which means ending the insane (and inane) focus on endless Second Reading debate. Repeating the ERRE exercise for the Standing Orders is just a black hole to be avoided, and all parties should back away from this fight (especially the Liberals).

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Roundup: It’s not really a $300/tonne price

A “secret memo” has been floating around from a couple of different news organizations, which purports to claim that a $300/tonne carbon price would be required to reach our emissions reduction targets, and of course, opponents of carbon pricing are lighting their hair on fire and saying “See! The Liberals are trying to destroy the energy industry!” And so on. Except that’s not what it says. It says that if no other measures were taken, that’s what the carbon price would be, but those are the only measures we’re taking. We’re doing a bunch of things with regulations and other programmes, not to mention that carbon prices can be the incentive by which industries will innovate and look for ways to reduce their emissions as it becomes a price incentive. You know, a free market mechanism instead of the heavy hand of government regulation. Regardless, the National Post version of the story has a bunch of perspective sauce, much of it courtesy of Andrew Leach, and I’ll leave you with some of his added Twitter commentary on the matter, much of it directed to Jason Kenney and Brian Jean in Alberta who are using this as “proof” that carbon pricing is ineffective and/or some nefarious scheme.

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847618988066480132

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847619329084465152

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847623276482281472

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847623719396585473

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847624387855400963

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847625197364457473

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847626174452776962

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847626766294241281

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