Roundup: Blame Dawson or the system?

As the Bill Morneau imbroglio starts to fade behind the outrage du jour, being the Paradise Papers, Andrew Coyne decided to take another crack at the issue, this time taking a swing at Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and her handling – or mishandling – of the whole affair from the beginning. The problem of course is that Coyne’s piece relies heavily on commentary from local civically illiterate crank and guaranteed quote machine Duff Conacher, for whom everything is evil and wrong, and why he hasn’t yet been labelled a vexatious litigant by the courts is beyond me. Regardless, it cannot be denied that yes, Dawson herself is a problem, but not the only problem.

A few days ago, Andrew Potter wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail about the whole sordid history of why we have the Commissioner position in the first place, and why it has always been a problem. And he’s right in pointing out that the point of this position has been politicized from the beginning, but as with so many of our watchdog or “Independent Officer of Parliament” positions these days, they exist as much to deflect problems onto as they do to act as the instrument by which the opposition can use as both a cudgel to launch their attacks, and a shield to hide behind if there is any counter-fire.

And to that end, we can’t simply blame Dawson herself – as much as she is and always has been part of the problem. Much of that lies on MPs themselves, who created the regime, wrote rules that don’t include ethics guidelines, and when presented with the litany of problems with the legislation, shrug and make minor tweaks without addressing the big stuff. And it happens constantly, so when imagined scandals happen, they can scream and rail that just following the rules isn’t good enough, but that the alleged transgressor must have known better and should have exceeded them. Never mind that it’s a nonsense frame to put around issues, but these are also the same rules that those MPs put into place. Saying that the rules they created for themselves aren’t good enough is galling, and one has to constantly ask why they didn’t create rules that were good enough in the first place if they knew that there were problems – and yes, they did know, because Dawson herself identified them. It’s childish politics, and just manages to make a farce out of their feigned outrage (not surprisingly).

Meanwhile, Conacher managed to get a whole piece out of the Star by complaining that the government is wrong in saying there aren’t enough qualified candidates for the Ethics and Lobbying Commissioner positions because he applied for the Lobbying Commissioner position and hasn’t been chosen. Err, that may be a reflection on you, Duff, and this exercise in your ego may be part of the reason why you’re not chosen.

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Roundup: Trying to score dangerous points

In amidst all of the really bad takes on Governor General Julie Payette’s commentary the other night, I find myself more than a little horrified that the Conservatives have decided to play political games around this. More specifically, they are attacking Payette obliquely by directing their comments at the prime minister, who didn’t leave well enough alone when he said it was great that the GG stood up for science. And great that she did, but this was also in the context of there being a willingness to torque the comments into a bit of a scandal, and to blow them completely out of proportion.

So what did the Conservatives do? It started with a Members’ Statement before QP, where MP Ziad Aboultaif denounced the supposed attack by the PM on people of faith (which isn’t what happened), and was followed up by a Facebook post by Andrew Scheer who said much the same thing – entirely ignoring that Trudeau is a practicing Catholic who has been public about the value that he places on his faith.

But what irks me the most about all of this is that it’s an example where our elected officials keep being cute about our most vital institutions – the Crown – and politicising them in subtle ways. When the Conservatives were in power, it was aggressively giving things a royal re-brand (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of), but the manner in which it was handled, along with the abdication on the opposition benches of similarly owning the fact that this country is a constitutional monarchy, allowed the media to paint the exercise as a Conservative nostalgia for the days of colonialism, and to tar the whole of our monarchical institutions with a partisan taint. And I fear that Scheer is going down the same path here in trying to stir up controversy around these largely innocuous statements by the GG in order to try and whip up his base. It’s a very dangerous game, especially because Scheer and his entourage have proven themselves to be ham-fisted in pretty much everything that they do, and that increases the chances of this blowing up in everyone’s faces, and the very last thing we need to do is try to politicize the Crown or the GG in this country. So seriously – knock it the hell off. This is not something that’s worth scoring a few cheap partisan points off of. You’ll only hurt everyone in the process.

Meanwhile, Colby Cosh has made one of the only reasonable takes on the Payette comments in noting that we don’t have rulebooks for Governors General, so they should stick to principles about appearing to arbitrate impartially, particularly because of the powers she possesses. And he’s right. And I would also add that it’s why I find the furore overblown – the existence of climate change and evolution are not partisan issues in Canada, so she’s not actually crossing any partisan lines in her comments. My own weekend column delves further into that aspect, as well as the reminder that she’s not actually a figurehead like so many of the pearl clutchers seem to be demanding from their fainting couches.

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Roundup: One is less than five

As the whole Bill Morneau issue continues to run on outrage fumes, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s office has been unhelpful in the least when it comes to trying to put this issue to bed. Two days ago her office said that “fewer than five” ministers held assets indirectly, and when this came up in QP on Wednesday, Trudeau confirmed what certain journalists had noted from the public disclosures – that it was Morneau and Jody Wilson-Raybould, who had since divested those shares. End of story. But no, then Dawson’s office responded to reports in the Globe and Mail that they were somehow “at odds” with the PM over just how many ministers were in such a situation (The Globe? Sensationalize something? Unbelievable!), and that one – Monreau – qualified as “less than five.” And that set the Twitter Machine ablaze, and turned QP in the gong show that it was of demanding to know which five ministers it was, despite the fact that this had already been answered on numerous occasions.

Yes, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics legislation is a mess that MPs refuse on a continual basis to do anything about when the issues are pointed out. Yes, Mary Dawson herself has largely been seen as unhelpful because she has had a tendency to read her mandate so narrowly that issues brought before her are deemed out of her purview. But as I’ve stated before, it’s rapidly turning into a job that nobody else wants, and given the very narrow criteria for a new one, it’s no wonder that the government is having a hard time filling the post, and we may be stuck with Dawson forever as a result.

 

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Roundup: There is no conflict with Bill C-27

Of the many Morneau Shepell conspiracy theories going around the past few weeks, the one that probably irritates me the most is the Bill C-27 iteration, especially in the way that fellow reporters and pundits will opine on the topic. The theory goes that Bill Morneau is allegedly in an “apparent” conflict of interest because a) when he was with Morneau Shepell, he advocated for the creation of targeted benefit plans; b) when he became finance minister, he sponsored Bill C-27, An Act to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985, which allows for the creation of targeted benefit plans in federally regulated sectors, and c) because he still had shares in Monreau Shepell (albeit indirectly) that it would enrich him if the bill passed, and hey, the share price of Morneau Shepell went up when the bill was tabled (never mind that it returned to its former price weeks later). It’s all ludicrous when you actually understand what’s going on, but since the NDP proffered this latest theory as part of Morneau’s alleged misdeeds, it’s been repeated uncritically, and it’s starting to get on my nerves.

First of all, last I checked people get into politics all the time to advance issues that they care about, and Morneau was a recognized expert on pensions. And pension reform was one of the things he was charged with undertaking when he became finance ministers. The pension debate has been going on for years, and targeted benefit plans are a recent iteration that several groups, including CARP, have been advocating for. Now, the NDP are opposed to them because they think that everyone should get a defined benefit plan like was the case in the 1950s, never mind that the actuarial tables don’t actually support them anymore, given that people stopped smoking two packs a day and dying early. (No, seriously – talk to an economist and they’ll tell you that this is a real thing). And Morneau Shepell is just one company that deals with administering these kinds of plans, and C-27 would not mandate them – it would simply give federally regulated industries the option to use them.

But the bigger issue is this notion that it was somehow inappropriate for Moneau personally to sponsor the bill. The problem? That ministers don’t sponsor bills as individuals. Government legislation is put forward on behalf of the government – meaning Cabinet as a whole. A minister sponsors the bill as the office holder because they have to answer for how this bill affects their departments, and in this case, it’s the Department of Finance. If there was a cabinet shuffle tomorrow and someone else became finance minister, it wouldn’t affect the bill because the office holder sponsors it to respond on behalf of the department. It has little to do with Morneau himself, and ministers don’t sponsor bills because they’re interested in the subject matter. (Note: This is why it’s a problem that there is no Government Leader in the Senate to sponsor government bills introduced in the Senate). Trying to say that it was inappropriate for Morneau to sponsor this bill, or that it can’t go ahead under his name, is civically illiterate nonsense, and reporters should know this. But they don’t.

As for Morneau’s shares, if they had been in a blind trust, we would likely still be having this conversation because he would have still been making money on them if they increased in value as they were gradually divested at a pace nobody would know about. A blind trust is not some panacea, but people have glommed onto it like some kind of ethical talisman. That’s likely why Mary Dawson said that an ethics screen was a more appropriate mechanism, and lo, it was established; likewise, it’s why she was apparently surprised by Moreau’s decision to divest his shares – because it’s unnecessary, but a number of pundits have declared that this is the thing to do without necessarily thinking it through. Also, Dawson didn’t say she was “concerned” about C-27, or that she was about to launch an investigation into it – she said she would follow-up with Morneau, and I’m pretty confident that she is going to come back and say that there is no actual issue here.

And this is partially why I’m getting tired of this constant wailing and gnashing of teeth about Morneau’s “apparent” conflicts – because if you actually stop to think about them, there are no apparent conflicts. The “appearance” of conflict has been put forward by people lining up information in a way that looks bad in order to make political gain, and We The Media have been repeating it uncritically rather that running it through a bullshit filter and declaring that yup, this is bullshit. (Most especially the attempts to drag the Bank of Canada and the Bombardier loan into this). But there is also some Tall Poppy Syndrome at work here (Morneau’s wealthy? Well we couldn’t have that!), and this urge by some of the punidtariat to moralize without thinking through the facts, while at the same time the Twitter mobbing ramps up. We really haven’t been doing our jobs here.

My last thought on this is that this is really endearing the Ethics Commissioner position for someone to apply for it. Given the strict requirements, and the fact that this latest episode has demonstrated that MPs can’t get their act together on their own ethics regime (seriously – they adopted this system, refused to change it when the flaws were pointed out, and then turn around an insist that the it’s not enough to just follow the rules that they put into place), I’m increasingly having a hard time imagining someone wanting to take on this job. We may wind up with Mary Dawson in this job forever.

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Roundup: Harper unhappy with NAFTA talks

Stephen Harper has apparently written an angry memo to his clients about the governmetn’s handling of the NAFTA negotiations, accusing them of bungling them by not evaluating American demands seriously (err, you have seen how many of their demands are literal impossibilities, right?) and of ignoring a softwood deal (which officials say was never on the table), and of aligning themselves too much with Mexico when they were the targets of America’s ire. Canadian officials are none too pleased, and consider it a gift to the Trump administration.

Alex Panetta, the Canadian Press reporter who broke the story, has more commentary below.

Paul Wells offered a few thoughts of his own on the news.

Incidentally, the PM has also vocally disagreed with former Conservative minister James Moore’s assertion that trade talks with China are hurting our talks with the Americans.

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Roundup: Holding companies and crying wolf

The fixation on Bill Morneau and his family wealth is becoming mind-numbing, with new conspiracy theories and allegations of conflicts of interest arriving daily. While the Conservatives made him the subject of their Supply Day motion, demanding he produce all documents he shared with the Ethics Commissioner while continuing to promulgate the absurd conspiracy theory that he was pushing through the private corporation tax changes for the benefit of his company, while the NDP crowed about more alleged “appearances” of conflicts with his tabling a pension reform bill that his family company could, in theory, benefit from. And the subject of whether or not he still controls shares in said family company went through the media cycle like a tornado, with confirmation from the Ethics Commissioner in committee testimony that she didn’t tell Morneau to place his shares into a blind trust – because, as it turns out, he doesn’t control them, having already offloaded them into a holding company that he doesn’t control (apparently his wife does), and none of this is subject to current rules under the Conflict of Interest Act. In response to it all, Morneau sent a letter to the Commissioner requesting a meeting to see if there’s anything else he can do to further comply with the rules that he’s already complying with per her advice.

Two things here – one is that the Commissioner has raised this exception to the Act in the past, and when the Act last came up for review in 2014, she flagged it then and it wasn’t acted upon. Guess who was in power then? The Conservatives, who also pushed through all of those changes to various accountability legislation in 2009, along with the NDP. The second point is that we have constantly been bombarded with constant baseless accusations about the “appearance” of a conflict of interest for everything under the sun. And with these various conspiracy theories being put forward, even Occam’s Razor will tell you that the idea that these changes being put forward, either to pensions or private corporation taxation, for the benefit of Morneau’s company are absurd on the face of it. Pension reforms have long been debated, and there are reams of data about the problems that these private corporations are being used for reasons they were not intended to be by wealthy individuals in order to avoid taxation. Trying to use Morneau as an excuse to make the government back off on either is absurd and shows just how debased our ability to debate is in this country if debate is being replaced by personal attack. Never mind the fact that there has been a whole lot of crying wolf. If everything is a conflict, then nothing is a conflict. Sooner or later a wolf will come, and nobody will care anymore, having been completely numbed by the constant cries beforehand.

(Incidentally, Dawson also called on the government to amend their fundraising bill to include parliamentary secretaries as those who must report, for what it’s worth).

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Roundup: Stop berating members for doing their jobs

It’s not often that I write about provincial matters, and especially not from Manitoba, but this one I felt like I should make a remark because of the way in which the story is framed, which infuriates me to no end. The headline is “Stephen Fletcher criticizes his own government’s bill in Manitoba.” Fletcher, a former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister, is currently an MLA in the province, and a backbencher in the governing caucus.

Because I know that the vast majority of Canadians didn’t get a quality civics education, let me spell it out – it’s a backbencher’s job to hold the government to account. Yes, even if they’re from the same party. And in this case, Fletcher had concerns about a bill and has been asking questions about it at committee meetings late into the night. In other words, he’s doing his job. We should be encouraging this.

But what does the local Canadian Press reporter ask the premier? Whether Fletcher should be removed from caucus.

Great Cyllenian Hermes, luck-bringing messenger of the deathless gods, give me strength before my head explodes.

We The Media keep insisting that we want more independent elected officials, and we constantly fetishise things like free votes, and the moment an MP or MLA starts asking tough questions of their own party or steps out of line, we freak out and start wondering if the leader is losing control of their party, or in this case, whether they need to be kicked out of the party. In this particular case, the article goes on to say that this is the first crack in party unity. Are you kidding me?

When we elect members under the First-Past-the-Post system, we are imbuing them with individual agency. That’s why we elect them to single seats and not giving votes to parties to apportion those seats out to their MPs. We privilege the independence of MPs and empower them to do their jobs. Whether or not they choose to do so is the bigger part of the battle, because of the pressures of looking like a team player, but We The Media make it worse because we pull bullshit like this all the time. Our insistence on these ridiculous narratives and demands that our elected members all act in lockstep constantly while at the same time demanding independence is doing the system in. It’s driving the need for message control which is poisoning our democracy, because our own journalists have a tendency to be too ignorant of how the system is supposed to work.

Let MPs and MLAs do their actual work of holding governments to account, and stop causing trouble. Seriously. You’re actively hurting democracy with this kind of bullshit.

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Roundup: Flaherty’s national regulator, take two

While the attempt to eliminate interprovincial trade barriers has been on the government’s agenda since 1867 (no, seriously), Jim Flaherty took yet another stab at creating a national securities regulator – despite being shut down by the Supreme Court the last time. This time, however, he’s not imposing a system from Ottawa – he’s working with provinces to create a “cooperative capital markets regulatory system,” that ensures that each level of government give up their own powers to this new body, and he’s got Ontario and BC signed on, meaning it has oversight over some 90 percent of industry in the country already. While most other provinces will likely come aboard in short order, Quebec and Alberta remain opposed for the time being. It will likely be discussed further this weekend at a federal-provincial finance ministers’ meeting. John Geddes looks at Flaherty’s journey to this point, while economist Stephen Gordon points out that our patchwork of regulations may not be our biggest problem – but a national regulator can’t hurt.

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Roundup: The RCMP officially get involved

The big news yesterday was that the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, has suspended her probe into the Wright-Duffy affair as the RCMP have begun a formal investigation into the matter. And then the RCMP confirmed this fact. So it’s all getting very real, ladies and gentlemen. It’s now in the big leagues, though it further gives the Conservatives an out from commenting on matters (“as this is an ongoing police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment” will be the new line in QP). On a not-unrelated note, Liberal Senator Joseph Day is starting a campaign to close that loophole in the Conflict of Interest Act that allows public office holders to accept “gifts” including cash from friends without reporting it. Day also noted that they tried to close this loophole back in 2006 when the Accountability Act was first being debated, but the Conservatives and NDP struck it down.

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