Roundup: Freeland articulates her vision

Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland gave her major foreign policy speech yesterday in the House of Commons, and the theme was basically that we can’t rely on the Americans anymore, so it’s time to step up more, and that includes hard power. That also means more spending on the military, some of which is there and waiting to actually be spent once we get some of our procurement issues sorted, but that particular speech is later today as the Defence Policy Review is finally unveiled. (And incidentally, on Friday, Marie-Claude Bibeau will unveil our feminist foreign aid policy). It was noted by a couple of people, chiefly among them Paul Wells, that we really should have a major foreign policy speech every year or so, and this is certainly a better indication of where the government’s thinking is at.

This was not the case with the previous government, and it’s certainly worth noting. That this government actually uses the time allotted for statements by ministers is a good thing, as the constant eschewing of Parliament in favour of human backdrops in some alternate location was insulting.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Carvin offered some cogent analysis over Twitter, so here you go:

You can also find Carvin’s thoughts in expanded form here. For some more analysis on the speech, read Paul Wells for some more context around the points Freeland made in the speech, Susan Delacourt on the jabs made at the Trumpocalypse, and Stephen Saideman for some more foreign and defence policy angles.

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Roundup: The difficulty with tracking spending

The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s latest analysis shows that it’s difficult to track budgetary spending commitments because they don’t often line up with the Supplementary Estimates. And yes, this is a problem. The solution is something that the government has already committed to, which is to reform the Estimates process. Right now, it is out of sync with the budget, where the Estimates need to be out before the beginning of the new fiscal year, but there is no set time for the budget to be released, meaning that the allocation of budget dollars happens before Parliament sees the budget. Later allocations to match the budget are supposed to then show up in the Supplementary Estimates, but as the PBO shows in his analysis, that’s hard to track. And even harder to track is whether those Estimates wound up being spent properly because the accounting systems used between the Estimates and the Public Accounts at the end of the fiscal year no longer match up, so tracking those dollars is also near-impossible. This has been an ongoing problem for decades, and the Liberals were elected on a promise to fix this problem. They have started to, but in recent months, the Treasury Board president, Scott Brison, says he has encountered resistance from the civil service when it comes to how they time things, and he’s trying to fix it. So that’s the hope, anyway.

What I hope comes from this exercise, however, is increased pressure on Brison and the government to carry on with reforming the Estimates cycle so that it better matches the budget cycle, and that the Estimates match the Public Accounts at the end of the year so that money can actually be tracked. What I hope doesn’t happen is for this to turn into calls to turn over yet more power and authority for scrutinizing the estimates to the PBO because that’s the whole raison d’etre of MPs, and they should be demanding that it be in a format that they can use and understand.

And while we’re on the subject of the PBO, here’s Kevin Milligan on the proposed amendments to the new PBO legislation, and why he still has concerns (as I do) about creating a massively powerful Officer of Parliament with no oversight or accountability.

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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: Senator Greene’s grievous error

The strange fascination with Senator Stephen Greene’s ouster from caucus has consumed far too much time and attention, and yet things keep cropping up that demand a response. Today it was his op-ed in the National Post describing what happened, and then he dropped this little gem at the end of his piece.

No. Greene is completely and utterly wrong.

The Senate may not be the confidence Chamber – that is rightfully the House of Commons – but that doesn’t mean that the Senate doesn’t play an accountability role because the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account. The Senate is part of Parliament. This is elementary civics for a Westminster democracy.

The way in which the Senate exercises its accountability role is different from the Commons, but it exists nevertheless. It’s not a copy of the Commons’ processes either, nor can it be redundant because composition matters. Sober second thought is actually a form of accountability that relies on checking government legislation from a less partisan lens that is removed from the grasping for votes that afflicts most MPs, for whom populist considerations can blind them to bad policy – something the Senate can call out by virtue of the fact that they’re not seeking re-election.

That institutional independence – not seeking re-election, tenured so that they can’t be easily removed by the government of the day, given job security until age 75 so that they’re not compromising themselves in seeking post-Senate employment – it all adds up to the ability to hold the government to account in a way that the House of Commons simply cannot do. That’s why the Senate has the unlimited veto power that it does – because sometimes a government with a majority will pass blatantly unconstitutional legislation because it’s politically popular to do so, but as we all know, populism is not democracy, and the Senate safeguards that principle. That is an accountability function.

That Greene is unable to make that distinction is a problem, and it’s especially a problem because he’s been leading the charge with the modernisation push in the Upper Chamber, and his is a vision that is looking to see partisan caucuses diminishing. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, the ability to have a coherent opposition in the Senate is a key Westminster feature and a guarantor off accountability, which simply cannot be done effectively if the Chamber is a collection of 105 loose fish. That the Senate is more vigorously examining and amending legislation now is not a bad thing, but we are probably at the peak of what we can or should be expecting in terms of activism without senators engaging in overreach. But to think that this isn’t accountability is simply ignorant.

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Roundup: Exit Meredith, at long last

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

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

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

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

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Roundup: Troubling rumblings in civil-military relations

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth about comments that Harjit Sajjan made in India that he was the architect of Operation Medusa in Afghanistan, before he later retracted and said that he was part of the team led by General Fraser. Part of why this has been mystifying for many is the fact that the error was made in his prepared remarks, which should have been caught but wasn’t, and now there are accusations of glory-seeking and trying to claim credit, which seems out of character for someone who seemed to rebuff the label of being “badass” when he was first appointed minister. I would say that the days it took for him to issue a proper apology are also mystifying, but this is politics, and nobody likes to admit error and there is likely a reflexive instinct there that needs to be dragged out. Because politics gonna politics, unfortunately.

What is more disturbing in this is the fact that you have both active and former military personnel calling for Sajjan’s resignation, which is a pretty big breach of civil-military relations. What I find even more disturbing is the fact that if you add this to the allegations that VADM Mark Norman was trying to make political decisions and using leaks to pressure the government to adopting his position on that procurement contract is that there may be a growing breach of the civil-military relationship in this country, and that is a Very Bad Thing.

One of Sajjan’s caucus colleagues, Mark Miller, who also served in Afghanistan, added his own defence of Sajjan:

One more thing: could we please stop with demanding resignations for everything? That’s not what ministerial responsibility means.

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Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Making a martyr of herself

If there’s one thing that we’re talking about right now that’s not the interminable Standing Orders debate, it’s Senator Lynn Beyak, of the “well intentioned residential schools” remarks, which came shortly after her incomprehensible remarks about trans people while saying that good gays don’t like to cause waves. And after being removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee, she put out a press release that didn’t really help her cause.

Of course, the more we talk about Beyak in the media and demand that Something Must Be Done about her, the more it’s going to embolden her and her supporters. The fact that she’s starting to martyr herself on the cause of “opposing political correctness” is gaining her fans, including Maxime Bernier, whom she is supporting in the leadership. Bernier says he doesn’t agree with her statement about residential schools, but he’s all aboard her “political correctness” martyrdom. Oh, and it’s causing some of the other Conservative senators to close ranks around her, because that’s what starts to happen when someone on their team is being harassed (and before you say anything, my reading of Senator Ogilvie’s “parasites” comment was more dark humour in the face of this situation than anything, and reporters taking to the Twitter Machine to tattle and whinge makes We The Media look all the worse).

But seriously, Beyak is not an important figure. She’s marginal at best within her own party, and her comments have marginalized her position further. But the more that people continue to howl about her, or post e-petitions demanding that the government remove her (which is unconstitutional, by the way), the more she turns herself into a martyr on this faux-free speech platform that is attracting all manner of right-wing trolls, the more she will feel completely shameless about her words. We’ve shone the spotlight, but sometimes we also need to know when to let it go and let obscurity reclaim her.

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Roundup: Staffers defend Canadian presidentialism

Andrew Coyne’s column on reverting to a system of caucus selection of party leaders got a lot of pushback over the Twitter Machine on Saturday, and curiously, those most in favour of retaining our current bastardized system of membership-selection were those who currently or formerly worked in the PMO (as well as a couple of current leadership candidates who don’t currently have seats in the House of Commons, which isn’t surprising seeing as they’d be excluded from such an exercise and well, they have egos to stroke given their current leadership ambitions).

And this presidentialization creep is what really gets under my skin, because it’s those who benefit from unearned power – the people in the PMO (less kids in short pants these days than they were under the previous government) who are the most ardent defenders of the system, and using this faux democratic mandate of the 150,000 “supporters” of the party as justification. What none of them bring up is the fact that the PM is unaccountable to those members in any real sense, and certainly unaccountable to the caucus he leads, and that’s a very big problem. And no, a system like that proposed in Democratizing the Constitution of membership selection/caucus removal would never work in practice because unless the method of selection matches the method of removal, there is a legitimacy problem, not to mention this is what happened with both Greg Selinger in Manitoba and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and look at where both of them are today. It’s not pretty, and it’s bad for our Westminster system. Caucus selection is really the system we need to revert to if we want accountable leaders and empowered MPs who aren’t being cowed by centralized leaders and their staffers, and we won’t get that now, especially if those staffers are all over the Twitter Machine trying to defend their turf.

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Roundup: What to do about Beyak?

The CBC caught up with Senator Lynn Beyak yesterday, and she essentially doubled down on her insistence that she’s said nothing wrong about residential schools, and then compounded the whole thing by insisting that she’s been “suffering with” these residential school survivors because she lives in the area with them and she once went on double dates with an Aboriginal fellow. The mind boggles.

So with this having been said, and Beyak insisting that she’s not going anywhere, people are starting to wonder what’s next (as they demand her resignation, if not from the Senate then at least the Aboriginal Peoples committee). Let’s deconstruct this a little first, shall we?

To start off with, as a member of the committee, Beyak is not really making decisions around Indigenous policy in this country, as some people are suggesting. The government – meaning Cabinet – still makes that policy, and the Senate and in particular the committee does their due diligence in holding them to account. They’re not actually making policy themselves. Add to that, Beyak is one vote out of fifteen (remember that committees in this current session are now oversized because that was how to add in new independent members without a prorogation to reset committee selection), so her vote is even more diluted than it would be in a regular parliamentary session. And given that her views are off-side with her own party’s, it’s not like she’s really going to be the swing-vote in any case. So let’s calm down about that. While the committee chair has suggested that Beyak step aside, it’s not really her call as to whether Beyak is a member or not – that’s up to caucus leadership (or in the case of the Independent Senators’ Group, they volunteered for committee assignments), and there’s nothing the Chair can do about it. But if the Conservative Senate leadership is aware that Beyak being on that committee is a problem, they can probably arrange to have her rotated off of it (if not right away, then certainly when the committees reset at the next prorogation).

Some people has suggested that Beyak be kicked out of Conservative caucus, but I’m less certain that that’s a good idea. For one, her being in caucus allows the Conservative leadership to maintain some level of control over her, and if she’s forced out, where is she going to go? The ISG, where she can look at Senator Murray Sinclair every organizing meeting?

As for the comparisons between Beyak and Senator Don Meredith – because people have been making them – it’s a specious comparison that needs to stop. He’s broken ethics rules (and possibly the law), whereas Beyak’s crime is wilful ignorance. That’s not actually illegal or against the ethics code, and no, you can’t expel her for it. What they can do, however, is maybe consider a policy of phasing her out – making it as unrewarding as possible for her to be there that she eventually leaves. It’s an inexact science, particularly for someone as clueless as Beyak, and this whole episode should serve as one more reminder as to why it’s important to take some care in choosing who to appoint, because they’ll be there for a long time with little recourse for removal (and Stephen Harper quite obviously was not taking care).

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