Roundup: A new Chief Justice

The justice minister announced yesterday morning that the prime minister would be naming Justice Richard Wagner as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, thus both respecting the tradition of alternating between a Common Law and a Civil Law judge as the Chief, as well as picking an accomplished jurist who has 15 years left on the bench, ensuring that there is a long enough period of stability on the Court. Wagner is well respected in the Quebec courts, where he hailed from, and it is noted that he doesn’t really fit into the left-right divide – something that is not only indicative of our Canadian system, but is one of those things that people point to when they note how a Liberal PM can elevate a judge chosen by his Conservative predecessor.

A trip to the Maclean’s archives finds this piece by Paul Wells on the day that Wagner was named to the Supreme Court was also the day that Justin Trudeau threw his hat into the ring for Liberal leadership, and that both men had famous fathers in political circles. Tasha Kheiriddin notes the choice of Wagner is a safe one.

It’s also worth noting that Wagner also becomes Deputy Governor General with his elevation to Chief Justice, and he can grant royal assent to bills in the event that the GG herself is ill or absent; he opens Parliament before a Speaker is elected; and he will head the committee in charge of nominating people to the Order of Canada. The practice since 1939 also used to be that the Chief Justice would close a session of Parliament instead of the Governor General following some particular manoeuvring by Mackenzie King while the GG was out of town, until the government stopped with prorogation ceremonies. (If you ask me, they should restore the ceremonies, but with the GG doing them).

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Roundup: Site C reluctance and costs

The BC government announced yesterday that they were going to reluctantly go ahead with the Site C dam project, which disappointed a great many people, not the least of which was the provincial NDP government’s Green Party allies (but not, apparently, to the point of withdrawing confidence, because they still have to get their self-interested electoral reform referendum up and running, and they certainly don’t want to jeopardise that). Oh, and true to form, it’ll cost even more than originally anticipated. Because of course it will. And while I can’t speak to some of the issues with some of the First Nations in the area, some of those cost issues were explored, particularly in this analysis, I also found the arguments of Blair King, who deals with contaminated sites for a living, to be particularly instructive on the issue, both in terms of the costs of remediating the work already done on the site, as well as the fact that other alternatives are simply not going to replace what the dam can do, particularly in the issues of night use for electric vehicles and the seasonal disparity of solar generation with usage – and certainly not for the same costs.

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Roundup: A couple of reality checks

As we head into the final week of the Commons’ sitting for 2017, there have been a couple of recurring themes in the past few weeks that could each use some good dose of Stephanie Carvin. The first issue remains that of returning foreign fighters, and the way in which the Conservatives keep repeating in Question Period that the Liberal strategy is apparently “poetry and podcasts,” which a) nobody has seriously suggested, and b) deliberately confuses preventative deradicalization programmes with those geared toward rehabilitating those who have returned from foreign warzones who may not have been active combatants (most of whom are dead by this point).

And then there is the Prime Minister’s trip to China, where a free trade deal wasn’t secured, which Carvin is an acknowledged China sceptic about from a national security standpoint, particularly because China doesn’t like to play fair, and will use tactics that include imprisonment and de facto hostage-taking in order to try and get their way in trade disputes.

Let’s hope that the opposition has a chance to listen to some of what Carvin has to say before they ask some more…dubious questions this week.

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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: Romanado’s version

A little over 24 hours after the allegations between Liberal MP Sherry Romanado and Conservative MP James Bezan ricocheted around the Hill, CTV got an exclusive interview with Romanado, and it’s eye-opening in how the accounts differ, particularly around the apology itself. In particular, Romanado disputes that Bezan had made attempts to apologize earlier – something she would have welcomed – and noted that she was blindsided by his public apology in the Commons on Monday morning considering that she was in her office when it happened, and only later made her statement to try to correct what she felt was wrong information.

The biggest takeaway from the interview (which I would encourage you to watch, despite the fact that it’s 20 minutes long) is the fact that in her estimation, Bezan broke the confidentiality of the mediation process by putting out his statement on Monday afternoon – something she respected up until that point, which is partially why she had been blindsided. She also notes that while others are accusing her of making a partisan issue out of it, she had plenty of opportunity to do so beforehand while she respected the confidentiality of the grievance process, and her “reward” for this affair is to be inundated with trolls over social media who have been replete with lewd suggestions about threesomes. As well, other MPs have come to her to recount their own experiences that they won’t come forward with.

There were a few other points of note in the interview – that what people will say was a bad joke felt to her like she was being undermined in front of stakeholders and treated like a sexual object, which made her job as parliamentary secretary harder to do. As well, she has been asked directly by young women who want to get involved in politics if they will be sexually harassed on the Hill, and she has told them unfortunately yes. There need to be conversations about what goes on and how to prevent it, but as this experience shows, it certainly appears that Bezan may have been engaging in some damage control that further sought to undermine Romanado, which is sadly the kind of cynical manoeuvres that happen here far too often.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt calls out those who would use sexual harassment allegations for political purposes, going back to the initial incident of those two Liberal MPs booted from caucus, while Robyn Urback argues that a bad joke is not really the same as the same kinds of allegations of sexual harassment that other women are coming forward about.

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Senate QP: Not the minister you’re looking for

The time came once again for Senate QP, and this week the special guest star was Jean-Yves Duclos, minister for families, children and social development. Senator Larry Smith led off, asking about CMHC providing the government with a special dividend while raising insurance fees for young families trying to buy their first home. After the Speaker gave Duclos the option not to respond as it wasn’t really within his ministry’s responsibility, Duclos said that he would let the finance minister know and try to get him an answer.

Senator Maltais asked a double-header around the potential job losses at the Davie Shipyard, and also wondered about that Quebec City bridge in a dispute with CN. Duclos noted that these really weren’t questions for him, but that his counterparts were engaged in discussions on both files.

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Roundup: Feeding the fear industry

The Conservatives’ final Supply Day motion of the year, and they chose to use it to both demand that the government bring any returning ISIS fighters to Canada to justice, while simultaneously condemning them for the Omar Khadr settlement – you know, the issue that they were going to hammer the government hard on back in September which didn’t materialize.

As you can expect, the arguments were not terribly illuminating, and lacking in any particular nuance that the topic should merit, but that’s not exactly surprising. Still, some of the lines were particularly baffling in their ham-fistedness.

Amidst this, the CBC published a piece about Canada’s refusal to engage in extrajudicial killings of our own foreign fighters out of the country, asking lawyers whether Canadian law actually prevents it, which not unreasonably has been accused of creating a debate out of nothing.

And this is really the key point. Treating issues like this one in a ham-fisted manner, whether it’s with a Supply Day motion designed to fail, or a debate created out of nothingness, is playing into the fear industry that we really should be trying to avoid. This is not the kind of nuanced debate that we should be having, which hurts everyone in the long run.

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Roundup: The coming Senate legislative crunch

While the legalized cannabis bill passed the House of Commons last night and is off to the Senate, questions about the kind of reception it will find there are sure to be buzzing about in the days to come. While the bill’s Senate sponsor wants a process akin to the medical assistance in dying bill to take place (something I find overzealous and ignores the context of what happened then), it’s unlikely to happen that way, and we may see the Conservatives in the Senate trying to dig their heels in. But it’s still early days, so we’ll see.

With this in mind, I wanted to turn to Kady O’Malley’s Process Nerd column yesterday, where she looked at how the Senate could gum up the government’s end-of-season legislative plan, as they try to push through a number of bills before the Commons rises in just under three weeks. The Senate is already seeing a growing backlog of bills on its Order Paper (a function I’m told has to do largely with the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” and his unwillingness to negotiate with the caucuses in there on timelines), and will likely sit up to the 22nd to try and get most of them passed. But what O’Malley described in the refusal by the Senate to engage in pre-study of the budget implementation bill as being a sign that of uncertainty, I will note that the circumstances around this demand for pre-study were unusual from a procedural standpoint. As he outlined in his speech against the pre-study motion, Senate Liberal leader Joseph Day pointed out that the point of pre-study is for the Senate to do a parallel committee process and send recommendations to the Commons before they complete their own study so that they have the chance to make amendments that the Senate proposes at that time. The problem is that this particular bill had already reached Report Stage in the Commons before the motion to pre-study was moved in the Senate by Senator Harder, meaning that the opportunity to offer amendments had already passed, and there was no actual cause for pre-study, and what Harder was looking to do was short-circuit Senate procedure for his own scheduling purposes, and well, the Liberals were having none of it. And in the end, neither were the Conservatives and several of the Independents.

And this is one of the things that I think O’Malley missed in her column – that part of the problem in the Senate right now is that the leadership (meaning Senator Harder) is not exactly doing the government any favours with his inability to manage the legislative agenda in that chamber, especially when he tries to do an end-run around the rules to suit his purposes. It will be a problem if he keeps this up, because the veterans in that chamber won’t stand for it.

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Roundup: Some actual accountability

If there’s one committee of the House of Commons that I wish I could spend more time following, it’s the Public Accounts committee. It may not be one of the sexier committees tackling the hot issues of the day, but instead, it’s the heart and soul of what parliament is about – holding the government to account. Alas, my day-to-day work means that I don’t have the time to follow it like I did in years gone by, but I try to keep an eye on them when I can.

In the wake of the latest Auditor General’s report, the committee’s vice-chairs – NDP and Liberal, as the Conservatives chair this particular committee, as one might expect for a committee dedicated to holding the government accountable – are vowing that they will hold hearings on each chapter of the latest report (rather than just selected ones) because they are concerned about his level of frustration that departments aren’t keeping their focus on how services are delivered to citizens (rather than their own internal processes), and more than that, they plan to keep calling back senior civil servants to ensure that they’re shaping up. This can only be a good thing.

Over the past few years, that committee has been more stringent in ensuring that they get progress reports from departments on implementing recommendations from AG reports, but now it looks like they’re willing to go a bit further, which is encouraging. This is the kind of work that frankly, we don’t see enough of from MPs, so I’m glad it’s not only getting done, but getting a bit of attention. That can only bode well for parliamentary democracy.

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Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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