Roundup: Butts/Bannon brouhaha

Tongues were set wagging in the Nation’s Capital yesterday when The New Yorker claimed that Justin Trudeau’s principle secretary, Gerald Butts, had struck up a friendship with Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, of Breitbart fame. Apparently, Bannon sees Butts as the left-wing version of himself, or something, and Butts allegedly told him that there’s nothing more populist than a rich guy raising taxes on the wealthy. And while everyone clamoured for some kind of confirmation out of PMO, getting non-denials from official sources, and “it’s just business” from the less official sources, none of the Canadian stories that I read stopped at the part where the New Yorker piece claimed that Trudeau reversed a polling slump by pushing through these tax measures. While I will readily admit that most polling stories give me hives, especially two years out from an election, I can’t for the life of me recall this having happened – Trudeau’s poll numbers have remained stubbornly high, and only really dipped a little when Andrew Scheer won the Conservative leadership, because at that point there was an actual face that people could put to the poll questions (never mind that questions related to which leader one would vote for are illegitimate given our system of government). Trudeau putting forward these tax changes were the first piece of legislation that they tabled, and while it took a while to actually pass (during which time a budget had also been tabled and passed), it had no actual effect on his polling numbers. Where the New Yorker got this particular tidbit is mystifying to me, and why Canadian outlets didn’t call bullshit on this – and subsequently look side-eye at the other claims in the piece – is similarly baffling.

Of course, the story would not be complete without Thomas Mulcair coming out to theatrically demand that Butts disavow this “friendship” given all of the drama around racism and white nationalism in the States over the past few days. The problem of course is that a) Butts is not an elected official, and b) there are NAFTA talks underway, and it would be really bad form for our government to so blatantly thumb our noses at the Americans in this way. Keeping a working relationship going would seem to be the most prudent course of action – but that never seem to be the course that Mulcair advocates.

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Roundup: Promised term-limits?

In yesterday’s Hill Times, the question of promised term-limits for Harper appointees in the Senate was discussed, with a variety of responses in return. Some confirmed that they had agreed to an eight-year limit and would try to hew to it, while others said that it was some great myth that they agreed to such a limit when they were appointed, and expressed bafflement as to where the media got such an idea. (Hint: A bunch of senators said that they agreed to it, including Senators Wallin and Duffy). And while some of those senators noted that things changed, and that it wasn’t a realistic promise to keep if it wasn’t applied evenly, I would also add that it would have been an unconstitutional promise (if indeed they had made it).

While there is some fairly clichéd grumbling about how terrible it is that some senators are appointed for thirty-some year terms, the concept of term limits in the Senate is generally a bad one for a number of reasons. First of all, most terms that have been bandied about are too short to be effective. The Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament, given that we have a fairly low rate of incumbency and a high rate of turnover in the House of Commons. Eight year terms are not only too low for much in the way of memory (twelve being better), the bigger problem with eight-year terms is that it would allow a prime minister with two majority mandates to completely turn over the composition of the Chamber, which is a Very Bad Thing when much of the raison d’être of the Senate is to be a check on a majority PM.

The other, bigger point, about having a Senate where they are appointed to age 75 and are difficult to remove is that the tenure allows for institutional independence. If you have term limits – especially shorter ones – it means that you stand a greater likelihood that senators start trying to curry favour with the government toward the end of their term so that they can get some kind of post-senatorial appointment, whether it’s a diplomatic posting or heading a tribunal. By ensuring that they stay until the mandatory retirement age, it means that they aren’t going to be trying to leverage their position for post-senatorial employment because they will beyond the age by which any federally appointed positions will have them. That’s an important consideration that often gets overlooked.

While this debate around whether these senators did or didn’t agree to such a term limit, there is no enforcement mechanism, and as stated earlier, it was an unconstitutional promise so it should be considered moot. As to the point as about senators with very long tenures, that remains something that the government that did the appointing can be held to account for (and indeed should be) if they consistently appoint young senators.

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Roundup: Closing three loopholes

As expected, Bill Morneau announced three new measures to crack down on tax avoidance by means of self-incorporation by high earners, many of them doctors and lawyers. While the government goes on a 75-day consultation period (to ensure that there are no unintended consequences) in order that the changes can be legislated in the autumn budget implementation bill, here’s economist Kevin Milligan explaining the problem and changes in detail here, plus his Twitter posts on the topic:

Morneau acknowledged that the changes may personally disadvantage him (though two of the three categories didn’t apply to him) – making it clear that he didn’t look into his own situation to ensure that he was being fair and not self-interested in making them.

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Roundup: Clarity is not an appeal

With another court case involving First Nations children, you’d expect there to be a bunch of hue and cry, and there certainly has been, but I wonder how much of it is actually misplaced. In this case, the government is seeking clarity from the court on a couple of aspects of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision on applying Jordan’s Principle, which is not an appeal. I’ve seen all manner of people, from reporters to advocates on Twitter railing that the government is appealing the decision. Asking for clarity is not an appeal.

If you actually read the story, they have legitimate concerns about the restrictions around case conferencing and on timelines in the decision, both of which seem to be pretty fair concerns to have given that both ministers are medical doctors and have expertise in what these issues mean. And I fail to see how getting clarity is trying to find a loophole to get out of the decision – it doesn’t track with either the promises, the investments made, or the fact that the whole file is more complex than many of the advocates would let on. You can’t simply pour money into a system that doesn’t have the capacity to absorb it and distribute it effectively, and you can’t just wave a magic wand into a jurisdictional minefield like this particular decision addresses and expect that everything will always have the best outcome by sheer force of willpower, especially when there are areas that are unclear to players involved.

The fact that I’ve been a justice reporter for the past couple of years means that I’ve been exposed to a lot of the sensitivities involved in complex cases, and this certainly qualifies, despite what certain advocates and opposition MPs would have one believe. Outrage that the government is going to court isn’t necessarily warranted, and most of the time, it’s been pretty disingenuous, whether it’s on this case, or in assessing the damages in the Sixties Scoop class action, where again advocates, opposition MPs, and even reporters characterized it as an appeal when it wasn’t an appeal – it was the next stage in a process where they needed to determine damages on a case-by-case basis rather than simply mailing out cheques. Not every time the government goes to court is nefarious, and people need to calm down because there is a lot of crying wolf going on that’s helping nobody, most especially the people who these decisions are supposed to benefit.

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QP: Tired jabs and deficit questions

Nearly all the desks were filled on what was possibly the final QP of the spring. Andrew Scheer led off, concerned about the “astronomical” debt the Liberals were leaving behind (which, in absolute terms, is one of the envies of the world because it’s quite low). Justin Trudeau reminded him that they won the election on promises to invest. Scheer tried again, giving a lame “budgets don’t balance themselves” quip, and Trudeau again reminded him that they needed to invest after the previous government didn’t and hey, lower taxes for the middle class and the Canada Child Benefit. Scheer railed about all of the new taxes being levied (most of which were not new taxes but cancelled tax credits that had little efficacy), and the PM reiterated that he lowered taxes. Scheer jabbed that Trudeau had never been part of the middle class, and Trudeau hit back that boutique tax credits and lower taxes on the wealthiest didn’t help those who needed it the most. Scheer then turned to the new national security bill, saying it removed needed tools for law enforcement agencies. Trudeau noted that they were balancing community safety with rights and freedoms, and that they welcomed recommendations for amendments. Thomas Mulcair was up next, grousing that the government broke their promise on allowing Access to Information requests to ministers offices and the PMO. Trudeau simply noted that they made the biggest reforms to the bills and increased proactive disclosure. Mulcair tried again with added mocking, but Trudeau didn’t budge, and Mulcair then railed that they kicked journalists out of a party fundraiser. Trudeau reminded him that they have raised the bar on transparency and that other parties weren’t doing. Mulcair tried again in French, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change.

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Roundup: Demanding ATIP perfection may be the enemy of the good

I find myself torn about the government announcement on new legislation to amend the Access to Information Act because on the whole, they made most of the changes that they promised to, but they failed to uphold one promise, which was to make the Act apply to the PMO and minister’s offices. And yes, We The Media let them know how displeased we were about it.

Part of the problem here is that like so many of their other election promises, it may have been a stupid one – kind of like their promise around electoral reform. Why? Because it was always going to be problematic to promise access to cabinet documents, and there’s a very good reason for that, because much of that information should remain private because it will otherwise damage the ability for there to be unfettered advice to ministers or between cabinet colleagues, and they need to have space to make these kinds of deliberations, otherwise the whole machinery of government starts to fall apart.

Like Philippe Lagassé says, the better discussion would have been to have specific proposals as to what falls under cabinet confidence. Currently the Information Commissioner has some determination around that, and with the changes in this bill, the onus will be reversed – the government will need to convince her (and if that fails, the courts) that information should remain secret, as opposed to her having to take the government to court to get that access. That’s significant.

There is a lot of good in these changes, but I fear that it will be lost amidst the grumbling that it didn’t go far enough. And let’s face it – sometimes We The Media are our own worst enemies when we use Access requests for cheap outrage stories rather than meaningful accountability, and then wonder why the government suddenly clamps down and turns to message control, and worst of all, nobody wants to talk about that problem. That may wind up making things worse for everyone in the end.

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Roundup: A swiftly-moving “stalled” bill

An odd narrative has been developing over the past few days about the budget implementation bill being “stuck” in the Senate, and that senators there are “holding it up” as the sitting days in the Commons tick down. And I’m really not sure where this impression comes from because the bill has only been there since Tuesday.

Quite literally, the bill was passed in the Commons on Monday, read in at First Reading in the Senate on Tuesday, passed Second Reading on Wednesday, and had the minister appear at committee on Thursday, and it was later that day that the motion to split the bill was voted on. (The Senate didn’t sit on Friday, for the record). If anyone can please explain how this is “holding it up” or “stuck,” I’m frightfully curious as to how exactly it works.

Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, went on The West Block yesterday and reiterated his praise for the Senate’s work and saying that he expected that this particular attempt to “alter” the budget bill is just “growing pains.” Err, except by altering, they are simply trying to split one section out so that it gets further study, so that the rest of the budgetary elements can get passed, while the section that does need further study gets it. That’s not exactly a major alteration, and they’re not looking to kill that section of it either – just ensure that it’s going to work like it’s supposed to. But then Trudeau insisted that it’s a well-established practice that the Senate always defer to the Commons on money bills.

The hell it is. Constitutionally, the Senate can’t initiate money bills, but that doesn’t mean they simply defer on all of them. Hell, the very first bill they passed in the current parliament were the Supplementary Estimates (which is a money bill), and lo, they had to send it back to the Commons because they forgot to attach a crucial financial schedule to it. Should they have deferred to that flaw? Yes, the Commons is the confidence chamber, and the chamber of “democratic legitimacy,” but Trudeau is conflating a number of different things here, and it’s a bit disappointing because he should know better.

And I will remind everyone that this current Senate, no matter how many bills it sending back with amendments, is still nowhere near as “activist” as the Senate was in the Mulroney days, where they forced him to an election over the free trade agreement and to use the constitutional emergency powers to appoint an additional eight senators in order for him to get the GST passed. The current iteration of the chamber, while they are sending more bills back with amendments, will inevitably defer. That the government is accepting many of those amendments shows that perhaps *gasp!* it was flawed legislation to begin with (not that the Harper government using its illegitimate whip over their senators to pass bills made them any better, because their court record shows they weren’t).

But if we could have fewer terribly media headlines putting forward a patently false narrative about what’s going on in the Senate right now, that would be grand.

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Roundup: Constituent consultation

In another instance of MPs breaking ranks, Conservative MP Scott Reid bucked the party by opting to vote to send the marijuana legalization bill to committee on second reading. Reid notes that he has favoured legalization since 2000, and it also didn’t escape anyone’s notice that his riding is home to a major medical marijuana factory which is also looking to scale up for the recreational market.

Of course, Reid is putting this with conditions, which is that he wants amendments to the bill at committee, which includes raising the legal age to 21 (because that will totally help kill the black market), and allowing communities to maintain their own prohibitions (again, good luck with the black market). More interestingly is the fact that Reid is promising a “constituency referendum” on whether or not he should vote for the bill at third reading.

It’s this referendum that I have questions about, but Reid points out in his statement that he has done this thrice before, so I’m not sure by what method he did (phone poll? Online voting?) and it’s more indicative of the Reform Party era where this sort of thing was promised a lot, and then rapidly fell into disuse because it’s not easy to organize, especially on a consistent basis with the volume of legislation that can pass through the Commons in any given session. Nevertheless, it’s novel and likely riddled with problems, and I’m not sure I would want to see MPs doing it on a regular basis because part of why we elect them in the way we do is for their judgment in a representative democracy. But…it’s novel.

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QP: A furious rewrite of the scripts

With the news that Madeleine Meilleur had withdrawn her name from consideration for Language Commissioner just before QP, you could almost hear the furious rewriting of question scripts. In fact, I saw pages deliver new scripts to MPs just before everything got underway. Andrew Scheer led off, raising her withdrawal, and wanted an assurance that future appointments would have cross-party support. Justin Trudeau responded with praise for his new open and transparent process. Scheer shifted topics to the risk profile of the Infrastructure Bank, and Trudeau praised the commitment to $180 billion in new Infrastructure that the Bank would leverage private sector dollars to help with. Scheer repeated the question in French, insinuating that this was about Liberal millionaire friends, and Trudeau reiterated his points on the need for the Bank. Scheer then moved to the issue of a public sex offender registry, and Trudeau insisted that they took the protection of families seriously, and it was up to police to advise the public. Scheer demanded that Trudeau reject the advice of bureaucrats to not make a registry public, but Trudeau stuck to his points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, noting the presence of a Hiroshima survivor and demanded the government join nuclear disarmament talks in New York. Trudeau said that they were taking meaningful steps which included rallying states for the support of a fissile material cut-off treaty and getting tangible results. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau noted that the treaty Mulcair demanded we sign onto didn’t include nuclear states, so it was somewhat useless. Mulcair moved onto criminal records for simple possession while marijuana legalisation in the pipeline, and Trudeau returned to his well-worn talking points about decriminalisation not protecting children or taking profits away from the black market. Mulcair asked again, louder, and Trudeau held firm.

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QP: At last, the exchange of quips

On a rainy Tuesday in Ottawa, it was all hands on deck in the Commons, with all leaders present for a change. Andrew Scheer led off, noting the anniversary of D-Day, and turned it into a question on fighting ISIS. Trudeau noted the contributions that Canada was making to the fight. Scheer tried mocking Trudeau’s television interview responses about positive spaces in this fight, and Trudeau quipped back that Scheer must not be too busy as opposition leader if he was all caught up on his daytime TV. Scheer batted back that it was the only place he could find Trudeau over the past week, and then railed about new taxes on beer and wine. Trudeau responded that they cut taxes to the middle class. Scheer insisted that wasn’t true, and listed a number of penny ante issues like making Uber pay HST and carbon taxes (which are largely provincial), and Trudeau noted the difference in vision that his government offered. Scheer then veered into a question about the public sex offender registry, and Trudeau called Scheer out for politicising the wrong issues, and said that trying to insinuate the Liberals didn’t care about children and families was shameful. Up next was Thomas Mulcair, who brought up the Madeleine Meilleur nomination and stated that she confirmed in the Senate that she discussed the position with Gerald Butts and Katie Telford — which isn’t what she said. Trudeau reminded him of the open nomination process, and when Mulcair tried to insist that one f them were lying, Trudeau didn’t budge from his points. Mulcair then railed about Trudeau slamming the door on Quebec’s face on their request to discuss the constitution, and Trudeau said that he had other priorities. Mulcair gave it a second go, insisting this was a snub at Quebec alone, and Trudeau reminded him that he says the same thing in English and in French and had no interest in getting into a constitutional quagmire.

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