Roundup: No knockout punch from Dawson

As expected, former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s appearance at the Commons ethics committee yesterday was a show for the cameras. Throughout the hearing, opposition MPs kept trying to get Dawson to insist that it was a big deal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules, and she kept rebuffing them, not giving them the clip that they were looking for. Because really, ever since former Auditor General Sheila Fraser remarked that the Liberals “broke every rule in the book” when it came to the Sponsorship Scandal, reporters and partisans have been trying desperately for another officer of parliament to give them a similar line (kind of like how everyone keeps looking for a “knockout punch” in a leadership debate that won’t ever come). Dawson also wouldn’t play ball when it came to the Conservatives trying to insist that the PM repay all of the costs of the vacation, and in fact seemed to defend some of them, so too bad for that attempted clip.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some value in the exercise. For example, while the PM and Dawson will dispute the extent of Trudeau’s friendship with the Aga Khan for the purposes of the Act, had she agreed that they were close personal friends, Trudeau would have been found to have contravened the Act in another fashion when he sat in on two meetings related to the Aga Khan Foundation (even though she didn’t find that he unduly influenced those meetings based on his relationship). Nevertheless, the “friends” exception in the legislation was cause for some level of debate and indeed consternation among MPs, but it’s something that Dawson thinks they might as well just get rid of in the statute.

And amending the Act was part of the discussion as well, both with regard to closing loopholes, and the discussion on penalties. Regarding loopholes, Dawson said that she needed to interpret that Morneau was within his rights to indirectly hold his shares in holding companies because she had previously recommended that said loophole be closed (and, shockingly, MPs ignored the suggestion). If she suddenly interpreted the legislation differently, that would have been a problem, hence her need to apply the law in a consistent manner. Regarding penalties, Dawson said that she feels that naming and shaming political figures is punishment enough, which didn’t sit well with MPs who wanted a sliding scale of penalties to demonstrate the severity of the offence. (Andrew Coyne also advocates “meaningful penalties” but won’t say what qualifies). The problem with this, of course, is that it turns any violation into a political circus as MPs fall all over themselves to demand the stiffest possible penalties for their opponents in order to score points, ignoring that the whole exercise is one designed for political consequences, which Trudeau has and continues to face. The other aspect is that greater penalties also create the conception that these are criminal sanctions, which the opposition has already been exploiting with language about how Trudeau “broke federal laws” to give the impression that he has committed a criminal offence (which he has not). Changing the rules to encourage this kind of demagoguery doesn’t help our ethics system in the slightest, and would probably do far more harm than good in the interest of scoring a couple of cheap points.

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Roundup: Morneau cleared – mostly

On her way out the door, now-former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released a statement saying that there was no ethics issue or conflicts of interest with Bill Morneau’s share sales, which blows the hysterical arguments about “insider trading” out of the water. As well they should be – these claims were never serious to begin with, and were part of the attempt to throw everything at the wall in the hopes that something, anything, would stick. This of course leaves the “investigation” into Morneau introducing Bill C-27 on pension reform while he still indirectly held those Morneau Shepell shares, and the opposition are still waving their hands around this and trying to insist that this is some kind of Major Ethical Issue, never mind that the allegations themselves depend on a fundamental misunderstanding with how ministers sponsor bills, and ignoring the fact that clearing bills with the Ethics Commissioner before they are tabled would be a violation of cabinet confidence and parliamentary privilege. But hey, we’ve already established that we don’t need plausibility or facts to get in the way of laying allegations – it’s simply about trying to build a “narrative” by whatever means necessary.

Meanwhile in Maclean’s, Paul Wells has a lengthy interview with Morneau about how his last six months have gone, and it’s a good read. The major takeaway in all of this is that Morneau and the cabinet got complacent after a string of successes, where they managed to get some pretty big wins despite initial grumbles from provinces around things CPP reform or healthcare premiums. The fact that they shopped those planned changes to private corporation tax rules several times and got no pushback meant that they let their guards down, and then with a combination of misrepresentation around what those changes were, and reporting that didn’t question those narratives, Morneau wound up blindsided, which was compounded by his dislike of being scrappy enough to respond to allegations and mistruths forcefully. One hopes that he’ll have learned his political lessons and that he’ll start stepping up a little sooner – and communicating better – but time will tell.

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Roundup: Ethics committee theatre incoming

We can look forward to a heap of bad political theatre next week as the Commons’ ethics committee plans to sit on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to demand that the PM appear before them to answer questions in regards to the Ethics Commissioner’s report into his Xmas vacation with the Aga Khan, and to hear from the now-former Commissioner on the report the following day. And you can expect that it’s going to be nothing short of howls of sanctimonious indignation. Oh, and there may be legitimate procedural roadblocks to their plans given that the report hasn’t been presented to the Commons yet, according to a former Commons procedural clerk.

Regarding the demands that Trudeau appear, it would be highly unlikely that the Liberals on the committee will let that go ahead (and they have the votes to block it if necessary). And if the Conservatives cry foul, they can turn around and point to the fact that they blocked an attempt by the committee in the last Parliament to have Stephen Harper appear before them to answer questions related to the ClusterDuff Affair, and fair is fair, besides which, Trudeau has answered in Question Period and the media on this issue. And really, why would a PM expose himself to an hour of MPs trying to play Matlock, asking questions that are all traps designed to get him to incriminate himself, and then baying at the moon when he refuses to answer. It would be worse than the performances we see in Question Period these days (which are generally terrible), and we’d get the same quality of answers from Trudeau, which will be some fairly pat and trite lines unless they trip him up (which is the whole point).

Oh, one might say (and Althia Raj did on Power & Politics last night), if they want to show that this is really a new era of accountability and transparency, they it might be in their best interests to go ahead and have him go before the committee, to which I remind people what happened when Thomas Mulcair appeared before a committee to answer questions related to the satellite offices issue. Mulcair blustered, obfuscated, and then proffered a fiction that Conservatives did it too (they didn’t – the “evidence” was a riding office and a party office in the same mini-mall but several doors down from one another, but hey, they were on the same sign by the parking lot), and as he did so, all of his partisans flooded social media praising that “this is what accountability looks like.” I’m not really sure that this is the kind of thing we want to revisit.

As for Dawson’s appearance, it’s “as an individual” since she will be officially retired by then, and we can imagine that it will be much the same – each side fishing for a media clip that fits their established narrative, which they will then flood social media with – assuming that she can answer, given the procedural issue identified. And we can imagine how many questions about Bill Morneau will be asked, followed by the Liberals asking how many investigations she conducted on Conservative ministers, and on and on it will go. It won’t be a constructive use of anyone’s time, but why does that matter when you’ve got cheap political theatre to perform?

Speaking of Dawson, here’s her exit interview with the Globe and Mail in which she defends how much time she took to write that report, confirms that she didn’t discuss Bill C-27 with Morneau (never mind that doing so would violate cabinet confidence and cabinet secrecy – funny how the Globe continually ignores that fact), and defends the advice she gave to Morneau about a blind trust (“You know what the hell’s in there. That’s a defect on a blind trust”).

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Roundup: Mary Dawson delivers a spanking

Outgoing Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released her report on the Prime Minister’s vacation to the Bahamas and the Aga Khan’s private island there last Christmas, and she determined that he had indeed broken four sections of the code. Reaction was swift – Trudeau quickly called a press conference to apologise and try and to take full responsibility, but stumbled in some of his responses. And soon after, both Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh called their own press conferences to condemn Trudeau and to rail about how out of touch he is, and so on.

First things first: The Canadian Press has five items of note from the report, and John Geddes offers three items of his own. Hay is being made – particularly from certain opposition politicians – that Trudeau is the first PM to have been found guilty of breaking these conflict of interest laws, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this current conflict of interest regime is only a decade old, and it’s not a lot of time for which there to be much to compare to. Aaron Wherry parses the report here, while Paul Wells offers his own bigger-picture look as to why this all matters.

This all having been said, I’m trying to digest the substance of the report, and some of it does rankle with me a bit, in particular the way in which Dawson parses how a friendship with someone like the Aga Khan should unfold, given the position that he holds. I also wonder if better context should have been applied to just what his Foundation’s dealings with the Canadian government are, because actual private interests aren’t being advanced here – nobody profits from this. A lot of what the Foundation does with Canadian aid money is do things like provide school books to Syrian refugees in camps in the Middle East, where they have the networks to deliver them. This isn’t nearly the same thing as accepting gifts from businessmen whose private interests and personal profits may rely on decisions made by the Canadian government, and I wonder if it’s helpful to treat those as being on an equal playing field. (Then again, maybe it is. I’m not an expert in this).

A couple of other thoughts – It is fair to ask why Trudeau and his team, who can be so focused on optics at times, were so blind to this one. But given that they’ve scored more than a few own-goals this last year with bad communications plans, that’s becoming clear that they’re not the masters at this that they sometimes appear to be. As for the lack of penalties in the Conflict of Interest legislation, we have to bear in mind that these are political actors that we are discussing, and merely naming and shaming them does have political consequences. If we got into games of demanding financial penalties or that public office holders be jailed for breaches, we change the political calculus of this ethics regime, and it would become an even bigger gong show than it is now, not to mention that it would make cooperation even less likely if they think there’s a jail sentence attached. And finally, there is a lot of smug sanctimony going around, but some caution had best be exercised, particularly by members of the opposition, when it comes to how the Aga Khan is portrayed in this. The Ismaili community already has their backs up over how he has been characterised to date, and those opposition parties could find themselves alienating an important voting bloc if they’re not careful.

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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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