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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Roundup: Budget madness, 2017 edition

So, there was a budget yesterday, but not an exciting one. It’s a lot of vision, not a lot of numbers, mostly fleshing out last year’s budget without a lot of new money, but hey, “innovation!” Oh, and no pathway to balance, but hey, debt-to-GDP remains stable, which is what counts.

But I’ll leave the analysis to some people who are more qualified than I.

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Roundup: Government vs opposition duties

While I’ve written on the topic before, comments made by Government House Leader Bardish Chagger on her tabled “discussion paper” on trying to make the House of Commons more “efficient” really rankled over the weekend. In particular, Chagger said the proposals were trying to find the balance between the government’s “duty to pass legislation and the opposition’s right to be heard.”

No. Just no. And here’s Philippe Lagassé to explain why.

The whole point of Parliament is not to ensure that government passes legislation. The point is to hold it to account, and that often means slowing it down and ensuring that it doesn’t overstep its bounds, which it is wont to do. Already it’s a problem that government backbenchers don’t do their duty and due diligence when it comes to keeping a check on the government – most are happy to toe the line in order to be considered for a cabinet post, which is a problem in and of itself, and we’ve seen this attitude of being “team players” amplify in the last number of years, particularly after the minority government years, when message discipline became paramount above all else, which is why I worry about how the backbenches will react to this proposition by the government. Will they willingly surrender their responsibilities of accountability because they want to be seen as being onside with Cabinet (particularly after the recent defeats of cabinet on those private members’ bills and Senate public bills?) Maybe.

What worries me more is the way that Chagger phrased the opposition’s “right to be heard.” We’re seeing increasingly that with this government and their insistence on constant broad consultations, they will listen, then go ahead with their original plans. I worry that this is how they are starting to feel about parliament – that they’ll hear the concerns of the opposition or the Senate, and then bully through regardless. Parliament is not a focus group to “consult” with, and I’m not sure that they’re quite getting that, particularly given Chagger’s statement. Accountability is not just politely listening, and the opposition is not there to just deliver an opposing viewpoint. There needs to be a tension and counter-balance, and right now I’m not sure that this government quite gets the need for that tension, particularly when they keep mouthing platitudes about working together collaboratively and whatnot. Then again, I’m not sure that the opposition necessarily gets the extent of their responsibilities either, which is depressing. Regardless, Chagger’s case for these reforms is built on a foundation of sand. Most should be fully opposed and defeated soundly for the sake of the very existential nature of our parliament.

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Roundup: Worst instincts for second-choice votes

As the Trumpocalypse serves up another “totally not just Muslims” travel ban south of the border, immigration references in the Conservative leadership race are certainly starting to pick up steam. Maxime Bernier started dropping not-so-coded references to “radical proponents of multiculturalism” who want to “forcibly change” the cultural character of the country (no, seriously), while Kellie Leitch offers up some of the questions her “values test” would include. Because you know, it’s totally not like people aren’t going to lie about the obvious answers or anything. Meanwhile, Deepak Obhrai says that statements like Leitch’s is creating an environment that could get immigrants killed, in case you worried that things aren’t getting dramatic. Oh, and to top it off, Andrew Scheer has a “survey” about terrorism that he wants people to weigh in on, and it’s about as well thought-out as you can expect.

While John Ibbitson writes about how the Conservative leadership candidates’ anti-immigrant rhetoric is a path to oblivion for the party, I would also add this Twitter thread from Emmett Macfarlane, which offers up a reminder about how our immigration system in this country actually works, because facts should matter in these kinds of debates.

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Roundup: A hopeless court case

It’s one of the most predictable performative dances in Canadian politics, which is that when you lose at politics, you try to drag it to the courts to fight your battles for you. In this, case, a UBC professor (and local Fair Vote Canada) president wants to launch a Charter challenge around electoral reform. And in order to do that, he’s talking about getting pledges of around $360,000 in order to get through the legal process.

The problem? This is an issue that has already been litigated and lost. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the appeal of the case that arose out of Quebec, which means it’s considered settled. The current electoral system is legal, it is constitutional, and while you get the odd prof here and there who tries to make an argument to the contrary, it’s settled law. And unlike some of the reversals we’ve seen the courts make over prostitution or assisted dying, there has been no great groundswell change in society that would justify the court in re-litigating the matter. In other words, he’s trying to raise money from people who are desperate to find a lifeline now that their political solution is gone that this is basically a scheme for lawyers to take their money.

This tendency to try and use the courts to overturn political decisions is a growing one, but it’s the same mentality as people who write to the Queen when they lose at politics. Have we had cases where governments have passed bad legislation and the courts have overturned it? Certainly. But political decisions are not bad legislation, and it’s not up to the courts to force governments to adopt what some people consider to be more favourable outcomes. It’s called democracy, and we have elections to hold governments to account for their political decisions. It’s also why I’m extremely leery of people calling for a cabinet manual, because it means that more groups will start trying to litigate prerogative decisions, and that’s not a good thing. It’s time these PR proponents let it go and try to fight it again at the next election. Oh, but then it might become clear that this really isn’t an issue that people care all that much about. Shame, that.

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Roundup: O’Leary’s debate debut

Saturday night was another Conservative leadership “debate,” and again I use the term loosely because there was very little debating going on. Yes, this particular event did offer more chances for rebuttal, but given that it was staged and structured like the most boring academic conference ever (all it was missing was a line-up at the floor mic for people to give fifteen minute speeches in the guise of asking questions to the panel), we still didn’t get a lot of candidates challenging one another. Not that it didn’t happen – it did, but most of the candidates spent their time taking shots at either Kevin O’Leary (particularly deriding him as not being a Conservative), and Maxime Bernier (most especially around his ideas about equalisation, which, to be fair, are a bit daft).

Going after Bernier may not seem like the think you would expect, but he has been leading the race in terms of fundraising, which is not an insignificant thing. One does have to wonder, however, if there are enough self-described libertarians in the Conservative Party to give him the edge he needed. Bernier, incidentally, says he was being attacked because his opponents are afraid of his position on equalisation. And to be fair, he’s probably right, but not for the reason he thinks, but rather because it has the potential to severely damage the party in the more “have not” provinces of the country, most especially in Atlantic Canada, where they already have zero seats.

As for O’Leary, this was his first real event on the campaign, and he didn’t exactly sparkle, but he did stand out from his competitors a few times, both when he refused to criticise the country’s justice system, pointing to his experience abroad, and in the kinds of shots he took at the current government, which were of a more brash tone than other candidates were taking. He also played his ethnic cards, saying he would consider it a personal failure if Lebanese Canadians didn’t all take out party memberships and declaring that he “owns the Irish vote.” Okay then. Will his brashness that help him? Maybe, considering how very milquetoast most of his competition has been, and the crowd who laps up this populist demagoguery seems to love people who “tell it like it is.” O’Leary, meanwhile, shrugged off the attacks and kept his cool, and didn’t take the bait and made a point of directing his attacks to Trudeau (and premiers Wynne and MacNeil) instead of his fellow candidates.

And the rest? Lisa Raitt had her best night ever, possibly bolstered by the fact that it was a bit of a hometown crowd for her, and she seems to be making her working-class roots that much more of her narrative, but I’m still having a hard time seeing what kind of direction she proposes to lead the party in other than “I’m everything Trudeau is not.” Also, props for bringing up that Globe and Mail piece on “unfounded” sexual assault rates and challenging the government to do something about it. Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux were laughable, Chris Alexander seemed to be doing a lot of “me too” to the points of other candidates – most especially Raitt – but had nothing really new to say. Andrew Scheer made a point of being parochial, Michael Chong remains the grown-up at the table which probably dooms his campaign, and for as middle-of-the-road as he is, everyone was quoting Erin O’Toole’s big line of the night saying “We don’t beat the celebrity-in-chief with another celebrity-in-chief.” The problem is that nobody quoted the second half of his statement where he brought up Robert Stanfield as the model to follow. Remember Stanfield? Who never beat the celebrity PM of his day (being Pierre Elliott Trudeau) and who never became prime minister? Yeah, not sure that was the wisest analogy. Also, O’Toole kept making Silence of the Lambs references, but completely wrong ones. He thought he was being funny by calling all 32 Atlantic Canadian Liberal MPs “lambs” who were “silent,” when Silence of the Lambs is about a cannibal and a serial killer. Not sure that was appropriate. Oh, and about eight or nine candidates need to drop out by oh, yesterday, because at this point, they’re going to start doing more damage than good.

Meanwhile, Peter MacKay says that Leitch’s immigration policy is going to damage the party, while Michelle Rempel lists the things she’s looking for in making a decision about a leadership candidate (and spoiler: Kevin O’Leary wouldn’t make the cut).

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Roundup: Losing crucial regional perspectives

As the hollowing out of the Press Gallery continues, we lost a fairly unique voice yesterday, being Peter O’Neil, who was writing for the Vancouver Sun. While he is but yet one more journalist who has been let go in this period of bloodletting, his was a fairly unique position of being the only “regional” voice left in a major chain paper. Yes, we still have the Winnipeg Free Press and the Halifax Chronicle Herald sending journalists to the Hill rather than just buying wire copy (which they still do, mind you), but those independent papers, and that does make a difference.

Once upon a time, each local paper for the major chains sent someone to Ottawa to cover stories here from the local perspective rather than rely solely on national reporters to feed stories to them. It allowed for local concerns to be brought to MPs here, and for the MPs to better engage with their local papers from Ottawa – especially as they had someone who knew their home ridings here to keep them honest. That’s all gone now. And part of why this is a problem is that there has been a proven correlation between the loss of regional reporters in the Press Gallery and a decline voter turnout in those communities where they suffered that loss. (There are academic studies on this, but my GoogleFu is failing me on this one, but yes, this was a subject frequently discussed during my master’s programme). And now, with even fewer national reporters there to do the daily reporting plus trying to get any kind of perspective, we no longer have reporters doing the same kinds of accountability on MPs themselves rather than just of the government. Peter was the last of the regional voices from the big chains, and because Vancouver has a particular unique political culture of its own, that was an important perspective to have. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why he wound up writing the biography of former Senator Gerry St. Germain – because St. Germain knew that O’Neil knew West Coast politics, he could trust him enough to tell his story. That’s not an insignificant thing in a country with big regional differences like Canada has. And this becomes a growing problem as we lose more and more journalists and positions here in Ottawa, which we need to figure out how to reverse, one way or another, before things deteriorate to the point of no return.

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