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: Charles and Camilla in Iqaluit

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrived in Canada, starting their tour in Iqaluit to talk about revitalising the Inuit language – project he has taken great interest in, and last year invited some Inuit delegates to Wales to hear about how they had success in revitalising the Welsh language there. While Charles’ official role in Canada is somewhat ambiguous now that we have a dubious succession law on the books (thanks to the previous government), he is nevertheless the heir to the Crown. The tour moves to Trenton and Prince Edward County in Ontario today, and Ottawa for Canada Day on Saturday.

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Roundup: Amendment and attempted intimidation

As the spring sitting of Parliament draws to a close, and the Commons is getting tired and cranky as MPs are restlessly looking to get back to their ridings, all eyes are on the Senate to see if they’ll pass the budget bill unamended so that MPs can leave, or if they’ll be forced to stick around to deal with delays. It looks like the latter is going to happen after the Senate voted to adopt changes made at the committee that would remove the automatic escalator on beer and wine taxes. (There is some debate around this – while on the one hand there is the argument that increases won’t be scrutinized in future years by Parliament, there is also a reminder that the indexation fight was settled years ago).

So while this means that the Commons wasn’t able to rise last night, and may have to stick around until Thursday, depending on whether or not they pass it at Third Reading tonight, and how fast it takes the Commons to turn around a vote on accepting or rejecting (almost certainly the latter) the amendment.

But that’s not the only curious part of this tale. Apparently when the vote was about to happen, all manner of Liberal MPs and ministers arrived in the Senate to watch the vote happen – but not in the gallery. No, they were instead on the floor of the Senate, behind the bar at the entrance.

While this attempt at intimidation is quite unseemly in and of itself, I’ve also been hearing complaints that Senator Peter Harder, the Leader of the Government in the Senate – err, “government representative,” is admonishing senators not to amend bills this late in the game because recalling the House of Commons to pass or reject those amendments “is expensive.”

I. Can’t. Even.

Telling Senators not to do their constitutional duties of reviewing and amending legislation because it might inconvenience a few MPs is gob-smacking in and of itself, but couching it in dollar terms is beyond the pale. Apparently, we can only have parliamentary democracy if it’s done on the cheap. Why have oversight or hold the government to account if it’s going to cost any additional dollars? I guess we might as well pack it all in and roll over for the government – costs too much otherwise. Sweet Rhea mother of Zeus…

Update: It seems there were some Conservatives there as well.

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Roundup: Imagining something we already have

Two different reality shows have been made pitches about televising the renovations to 24 Sussex, and some of their reasons for doing so are frankly appalling. On the one hand, one can see the temptation of such a project, both in terms of the drama, the fact that the constant conversation and hate-watching would drive the ratings, or the possibility of some form of public accountability where people would see on their screen what their millions of dollars of tax dollars are paying for (and before you say anything else, I am very dubious about that  $38 million figure being thrown around, because it likely involves a bunch of security bells and whistles that the RCMP have thrown into it that may not actually be necessary but are a bunch of “nice to haves” while they’re blue-skying). And while that’s all well and good, one of the proponents, Lynda Reeves went and put her foot in it.

We already have our “White House equivalent,” and that’s Rideau Hall. It’s where the Head of State resides when she’s in the country, and where her representative lives and conducts his work. And I know that this may be hard for someone like Reeves to grasp, but the prime minister is not a president. He is the head of government, the “first among equals” of the Cabinet, and most emphatically not the head of state. He may have an official residence, but he doesn’t require the equivalent of a White House because his job is not the same, and he has two official offices – one in Langevin Block, and the other in Centre Block (with a temporary replacement being constructed in the West Block as we speak for the decade where the Centre Block will be out of commission). He doesn’t need a live-work space like the White House is.

It’s this kind of intellectual and cultural laziness that is the exact same as people who refer to Sophie Gregoire Trudeau as the “First Lady” when she very much is not. We don’t have a First Lady or a First Family because we have a monarchy, and those roles belong to the Royal Family. The closest thing we have to a “First Lady” other than the Queen (or Prince Philip if you want to qualify the spouse of the Head of State in such a role) is actually the Chatelaine of Rideau Hall, which is the title given to the spouse of the Governor General when the spouse is a woman (which I suppose would be châtelain when the GG is a woman with a male spouse).

So no, Lynda Reeves, we don’t need a symbol similar to the American White House because we already have one. And if we want Canadians to have an image in mind when they close their eyes and imagine what the equivalent is, there are plenty of photos to choose from. Here’s one:

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Roundup: Neglecting our Canadian Sovereign

It was Victoria Day yesterday, which is a uniquely Canadian holiday that both celebrates the “mother” of Confederation, Queen Victoria, as well as acts as the official birthday of the Canadian monarch (no matter when their natural person’s birthday is). You might find it strange to find that in his message for Victoria Day, the Governor General didn’t reference the Queen of Canada at all, but rather the forthcoming Sapphire Jubilee and her being the first British monarch to achieve it.

Why does this matter? Because the Queen of Canada is a separate legal entity from the Queen of the United Kingdom, and because the holiday celebrated the Queen of Canada’s official birthday. Now, there were quibbles with my tweet pointing out the fact that the GG made the omission, but I maintain that the bigger point stands.

And Lagassé is correct in that – the emphasis is curious, and part of a troubling trend from the Canadian government, which has only exacerbated since the Liberals came to power.

While the Conservatives did a lot to bring some of the focus back to the Canadian monarchy after a couple of decades of neglect and the conscious effort to “Canadianize” a number of institutions by dropping their Royal monikers (like the Royal Canadian Navy being changed into “Maritime Command” for example, until the Conservatives restored its original name), they too did their own damage to the institution, primarily when they made the utterly boneheaded decision to pass legislation that when it came to changing the line of succession to include female heirs and those who are Catholics, they merely assented to British legislation rather than amending it in Canada. In other words, they turned what was control over our own Crown and Sovereign, and undid all of the progress we’ve made since the Statute of Westminster in 1931, when the Canadian Crown became separate from the UK Crown, and turned us essentially into Tuvalu when it comes to our relationship with the Crown, and thus far, the Courts have sided with the government when it comes to the challenges of this legislation, because the appreciation of the distinction and the role of the Canadian Crown remains largely ignorant to the vast majority of Canadian society, the judiciary included. (Incidentally, that was another bill that the Commons passed at all stages with no debate, and while it was debated in the Senate rather than veto it and tell the government that the proper way to change the law of succession is by way of constitutional amendment).

Meanwhile, the current government hasn’t named a new Canadian Secretary to the Queen since the last one retired, and has been letting the republican bureaucrats in the Department of Canadian Heritage run roughshod over the relationship with the Royal Family. And because the vast majority of Canadians don’t know any better, we’re slowly killing our distinct Crown and turning ourselves back into a mere colony. So yeah, it does matter that the GG couldn’t get this very basic thing right, and we should be upset about it.

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Roundup: Exit Meredith, at long last

It is perhaps not entirely surprising, but it seems that soon-to-be former Senator Don Meredith had the tiniest shred of shame left in him after all, and he announced yesterday that he would be resigning from the Senate. Well, sort of. He wrote a letter where he implied that he was resigning but didn’t actually say it, and made himself out to be a hero for not putting the Senate through a Constitutional challenge around its powers to expel a member. It took calls to Meredith’s lawyer to confirm that yes, he was resigning, and then more calls to confirm that yes, the letter stating that had been sent to the Governor General (who has to get it and then inform the Senate Speaker of that fact) but just hadn’t arrived during the evening political shows.

So now there are a couple of questions remaining. One of them is what happens to the two ongoing investigations into harassment in his office, which would normally be suspended given that they are considered moot given that he’s no longer there. That could change, however, if the Senate Ethics committee decides to let them continue in order for everything to be aired. Given the current mood, that may still happen.

The other question, and we’ll hear no end of sanctimony about it, is about Meredith’s pension. That’s the one thing that most reporters immediately glommed onto yesterday, because of course they did. Apparently, Treasury Board gets to make this call, and they’ve apparently reached out to PMO on the issue, so I’m sure we’ll get some kind of a political determination around it within a couple of days. At that point, we’ll see if Meredith decides that it’s a fight he wants to take on, despite the fact that he’ll have popular opinion against him. He may, however, have the law on his side, but more to the point, the desire to preserve one’s pension has been a driving force for getting bad actors to resign gracefully. Taking that option away will disincentivise future bad actors to do so, which is a bigger problem long-term than the public outrage about this one public figure.

Meanwhile, this means that the Senate’s powers to expel one of its own members will remain untested, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure that it’s preferable for them to have gone ahead with it, even as a test case, given the historical message that it sends. Regardless, here’s James Bowden laying out the case for why the Senate does have the power to expel its own members, should it become necessary once again in the future.

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Roundup: Dragging in the GG

The performative outrage against Trudeau’s Castro comments reached a new low yesterday with the announcement that the Governor General would be attending the commemoration in Havana as the Canadian representative. Despite not being a leadership candidate (thus far), Conservative MP Michelle Rempel took to Twitter to perform some more outrage, and dropped these particular gems.

It wasn’t so much that my head exploded. More like a piece of my soul died in utter exasperation because I know for a fact that she knows better. Misrepresenting the role of the Governor General is a particularly terrible thing to do, particularly giving the impression that you can write to him (or worse, the Queen) and he’ll somehow override the Prime Minister and the government of the day for your own partisan benefit. No, it doesn’t work that way, and its antithetical to the entire foundation of our system of government. And giving your follows completely the wrong impression about how Responsible Government works for the sake of some temporary passing performative outrage for the issue of the day is particularly heinous because it poisons the well. And this is what trying to stir up populist outrage does – it poisons the well for all of politics, particularly when you misrepresent things for temporary advantage. I get that there is political theatre, and that in the age of social media you need to be performative to a degree, but for the love of all the gods on Olympus stop undermining the whole system. When you stir up this hornet’s nest, it will come and bite you just as much as it does the government of the day, and we will all be left with a giant mess like we’re seeing south of the border. This is not something we want to import or emulate, no matter how many points you think it will win you temporarily. Only madness lies along this path, and the damage is insidious and incalculable, particularly when it comes from people who actually know better. It’s not a game. Stop treating it like it is.

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Roundup: A warning or a betrayal?

Justin Trudeau made some comments to Le Devoir about the reduced sense of urgency around electoral reform, and a bunch of people – notably the NDP – freaked out. Trudeau said:

Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like’. But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling.

And then comes the parsing of the rhetoric – is he trying to walk back on his election promise that 2015 was the last election under first-past-the-post, or is he trying to give signals to the electoral reform committee as they begin to draft their report after their summer of consultations across the country? To the NDP (and Ed Broadbent of his eponymously named Institute), Trudeau’s comments are a betrayal because to them, he can only deliver proportional representation or bust. Their working premise is that Trudeau was saying that because the system elected Liberals it’s fine, but when it elected Conservatives, it was broken. But I’m not sure that’s what Trudeau was actually saying, because the prevailing popular discussion pre-election was that reform was needed because any system that delivered Conservative majorities was deemed illegitimate – one of those kinds of talking points that gives me hives because it presumes that electoral reform needs to be done for partisan reasons. And to that extent, Trudeau is right, that the sense of urgency has decreased because the Conservatives are no longer in power, so there’s less clamour for it to happen. There is also the theory that what Trudeau was signalling was that there are degrees of acceptable change, and that without as much broad support that smaller change like ranked ballots could be something he would push through (seeing as we all know that the committee is going to be deadlocked).

Kady O’Malley, on the other hand, thinks that Trudeau is signalling to the NDP and Greens that they should be willing to compromise on PR during the committee deliberations, or he’ll deem it a stalemate and either walk away or put it to a referendum, where it would almost certainly be doomed. Rona Ambrose says that it could signal that Trudeau is backing down, which the Conservatives would like (and to be perfectly honest, I would too because the system is not broken and electoral reform is a solution in search of a problem). That he may have found the excuse to back down and admit this election promise is a failure – and then move on – would be the ideal move in my most humble opinion.

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Roundup: Laying the groundwork for deadlock

Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen the markers being placed, and the groundwork is now being laid for the likely deadlock that will be the committee report on electoral reform. With the last of the cross-country consultations taking place this week, the parties started marking their turf this week – the NDP with their vacant report showing “overwhelming” support for proportional voting – along with demands for local representation, which means that they’re going to demand Mixed-Member Proportional, which was their intention all along. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have no position other than they demand a referendum, and yesterday they released the results of their surveys which came back “overwhelmingly” in favour of such a thing. (Never mind that both the Conservatives and the NDP had pretty much zero rigour when it comes to how they achieved those results, and the selection bias was pretty evident, they’re only interested in shock-and-awe headline results). Oh, and the Conservatives insist that they’re willing to find a consensus on a system – really! – but without a referendum, it’s no way no how.

In the middle of this, the Liberals are all going to start turning in the reports from their town hall meetings, all of which focused on “values” rather than specific systems, in the likely hopes that they too will have enough loose data that they can fudge into justifying whatever system they want – or, in the likely event of a deadlock, to justify that the current system already reflects those values (except of course for proportionality, but we all know that demand is based on a logical fallacy, and it would be great if they would actually admit that), so they can wiggle out of their commitment to reforming said system wholesale. Kady O’Malley thinks that this will really come down to the NDP deciding on whether to stick to their guns on proportionality or if they’ll put some water in their wine and accept ranked ballots, but given their completely specious rhetoric on the subject to date (“First-past-the-post on steroids!”), I think that’ll be too hard of a pill for them to swallow.

So, with any luck, this whole thing will blow up in everyone’s faces, and the government will have to swallow their pride, admit defeat, and move onto other, more important issues. One can always hope, anyway.

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