Roundup: On “luxury” flights

Over the weekend, Andrew Scheer tweeted about how the defence minister had spent last year taking “luxury flights” as part of government business – twenty of them, for 206 flying hours. The horror!

Of course, the notion that Canadian Forces Airbus jets are “luxury flights” is beyond ridiculous. These planes are so old that they still have ashtrays at the seats, and part of the fleet was retired because they couldn’t get any spare parts any longer. There is nothing “luxurious” about them. Not to mention the fact that for most of these trips, they weren’t to destinations that could be taken commercially with any particular ease, such as a few fact-finding missions to Mali along with key military brass. But hey, why should facts or context matter when you can tweet out outrageous spin in order to drum up a bunch of faux outrage?

But why is Scheer pushing this ridiculous notion? Partly, it’s the constant drone of cheap outrage that ensures that Canadians can’t have nice things (and We The Media can share a lot of blame for this particular problem). Partially, it’s because he’s made it his mission to treat the viewing audience like idiots. But mostly it’s to try and create this narrative that the Liberals are so entitled that they spend profligately on themselves (not actually true) as opposed to those who need it. And to try and enforce that narrative, they will repeat it ad nauseum until people start thinking that it’s true. I keep waiting for the “positive politics” and “change of tone” that Scheer promised to actual start to manifest itself, but nope.

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Roundup: Lagging CBSA oversight

A report commissioned by PCO advises for the creation of a new oversight body for both the CBSA and the RCMP, given the amount of overlap between the two bodies when it comes to law enforcement. Currently, CBSA has no civilian oversight, though its national security functions are just now getting some oversight under the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, and those functions would likely fall under the creation of the new intelligence commissioner created in Bill C-59 – but those don’t deal with the day-to-day interactions at the borders, or with some of their other functions, like immigration detention.

What the Canadian Press story doesn’t mention is that there is right now a Senate bill sitting on the Order Paper, which passed the Senate unanimously, to create a CBSA Inspector General. In fact, it passed in October 2016, and has been sitting there ever since, as no MP has bothered to sign up to sponsor it (which is unusual in the extreme). More unusual is the fact that Ralph Goodale had previously signed up to sponsor the version of the bill that was being debated in the previous parliament, but now that he’s public safety minister, he’s become much more gun-shy, saying that they need to do more consultation and will come out with their own bill. But almost a year-and-a-half later, it’s still sitting there, when it could be amended by the government to make whatever technical fixes they deem necessary and swiftly passed. (I last wrote about this for the Law Times a year ago).

Of course, if they wanted to go that route, the government would need to give the bill a Royal Recommendation and put in implementation language into the bill – something that it currently lacks to get around the requirement that it can’t spend money. In other words, it’s a framework but nothing more at this point. But if the government were serious about oversight for CBSA, they could do something to ensure that it happens expeditiously. But that commitment to oversight seems to be a bit more academic at this point, given that they haven’t moved on this in all this time. And that should be mentioned in these more recent stories, but haven’t been.

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Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

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Roundup: Foreign fighters and the fear industry

As the issue of returning jihadis continues to ramp up, with some frankly irresponsible journalistic stirring of pots along the way, it’s important that we take a breath and listen to some of the experts who study this kind of thing for a living.

To that end, Ralph Goodale was on CTV’s Question Period yesterday, talking about how it’s unlikely that most of those who return could be rehabilitated (which is assuming that those who return are hard-core jihadis and are not likely women and the children they had while over in there), which is again countered by yet other experts who say that it is possible to rehabilitate them, but it requires careful effort.

But the thing that we should be most aware of is the fact that there is an industry dedicated to fear in Canada, and we should be very cautious of feeding into it – especially if it’s simply for partisan point-scoring, or even for the sake of a sensational headline. And we are seeing a lot of this partisan point-scoring right now, with the Conservatives insisting that the government is being “soft on terror” by welcoming the worst murders back with hugs and government dollars for said rehabilitation, which is completely not the case – but hey, we’re in an era right now where the truth is hardly anywhere to be seen in the opposition benches as everything needs to be wrapped in a disingenuous and mendacious frame in order to amp up the drama, for the sake of sharing it on their social media channels, damn the consequences. And there are consequences, such as the reports of people trying to confront Trudeau about those returning jihadis during that swarming at the mall in Scarborough, no doubt whipped up by the fear industry. We should have a sense of responsibility around a serious topic like this, but I’m not seeing much of one.

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Roundup: PBO confirmations on tax changes

The Parliamentary Budget Officer came out with a report yesterday on the proposed tax changes around passive income, and all of the headlines screamed that they could net the federal government $6 billion. “Oh, but it’s not a cash grab,” opposition MPs said sarcastically in return, including during QP yesterday. The problem, of course, is that if they read, that $6 billion would be over two decades, and more importantly, that the PBO confirmed that three percent of personal corporation holders generate some 90 percent of passive income, which confirms that the point of the measures is to target those who incorporate for the sole purpose of investing and taking advantage of the lower rates as a part of that.

To help walk us through the report and its findings, here are Kevin Milligan and Lindsay Tedds:

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QP: Fabrications and absences

While the PM was away in Scarborough to announce the government’s housing strategy — and to campaign for his candidate in the by-election there — Andrew Scheer introduced his party’s newest MP to the Chamber before things got underway, and fortunately Dane Lloyd didn’t try to struggle as he came in. Scheer led off, demanding that the PM condemn the “egregious crackdown on free speech” at Laurier University. With the PM away, Kirsty Duncan offered assurances that they want to assure freedom of speech and the protection of Charter rights. Scheer lamented that the PM just couldn’t denounce it — being cute because he knows he can’t refer to the PM being absent — and then he launched into a tired question about Bill Morneau’s asssets. Morneau got up and first wished the Speaker a Happy Birthday — and after the Chamber stood up for a quick rendition of the appropriate song, Morneau reminded the chamber that he worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Scheer then turned to worry about tax changes and the supposed “attacks” on local businesses, and Morneau gave him assurances that they had listened to Canadians. Alain Rayes got up next to make a pair of demands in French for all of Morneau’s assets, and he deflected by noting that the opposition didn’t want to recognize the good work of the government in strengthening the economy. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP and started off with mentioning the Auditor General’s concerns about CRA’s call centre, but started throwing all manner of accusations at the wall, so Diane Lebouthillier assured him that working for Canadians was highlighted in her mandate letter. Alexandre Boulerice gave much the same in French, and Lebouthillier again got up to assure him that they were going after tax havens, and they didn’t circulate misinformation, unlike the other side. Boulerice railed at the laundry list of apparent sins, and Lebouthillier reminded him that the previous government cut CRA but they were reinvesting. Caron went for one more round of the same, not that the response changed.

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Roundup: A cynical membership ploy

Oh, Alberta politics. For the place where I first got cut my political chops, you continue to fill me with such…outrage, particularly with how you’ve so bastardized the way in which leadership contests are supposed to run. The former Progressive Conservative party was a good example of how our system could be so debased as to turn those leadership contests into quasi-primaries that they became a direct election of the premier through instant party memberships, and usually block votes to groups such as teachers, for whom leaders like Alison Redford became indebted to. This time, it’s the antics of the upstart Alberta Party that has me fuming.

For those of you who don’t know, the Alberta Party is a centrist party of mostly hipsters and academics that aims to try and find the sweet spot of the province’s political pulse, while also not being associated with the heretofore tainted Liberal brand. (Disclosure: I was friends with one of the leadership hopefuls in the previous contest, and am friends with a previous candidate for the party in the last election; both, incidentally, are academics). And with the demise of the amorphous PC brand and its quasi-centrism in favour of Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and its decidedly more right-leaning brand, there is optimism within the Alberta Party that hey, maybe they can attract some of the former PC types fleeting for greener pastures. And so with that in mind, the current leader (and up until a week ago, holder of their only seat in the legislature, until an NDP defector joined the ranks) decided he was going to resign.

But – and here’s the catch – he just might run for the position again. And admitted yesterday that his resignation is a ploy to drive party memberships. And this is the part that makes me crazy, because it reinforces this sick notion that has infected our body politic that the only real reason that the grassroots membership exists any longer is for the purpose of leadership contests. And while sure, that’s important, it continues do drive this growing push that makes these contests into quasi-presidential primaries that centralises power in the leader’s office because the selection (and subsequent ability to remove said leader) rests outside of the caucus – though I will grant you that for Greg Clark, that was a caucus of one until just now.

And I get that at this point, the Alberta Party is one that isn’t as centrally-driven as other parties, and where there is trust in candidates about policy matters that they’re not just parroting talking points (so says my friend who ran for them), and that’s great. But it’s also indicative of a party without seats (which they had none until the last election), and without a taste of power. But it nevertheless follows the pattern that memberships – which Clark is trying to drive – is all about the leadership, and not about the nominations, or the grassroots policy development, or being the interlocutor between civic life and the legislature. And if they do manage to attract a bunch of former PCers, that could be either great for them, or their own demise as that party’s former culture takes over the party (which isn’t necessarily a great thing). It’s a risky move that Clark made, and it may present a change for the political landscape…or it becomes one more cynical exercise in bastardizing the meaning of grassroots party memberships. I guess we’ll have to see.

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Roundup: Mid-term check-in

Over in Maclean’s, John Geddes put together a deep dive into the current government’s midterm woes, and it’s well worth the read – and it’s a pretty long read too. But once you’re done (seriously, this post isn’t going anywhere), I would want to push back on some of the things that he highlights.

For starters, I think that there is something to be said for a government that is willing to walk back on bad promises, and they made a few. Most notably is electoral reform, and the fact that they could actually take the step of smothering it the cradle is actually something that they should be congratulated for. We dodged a bullet with that one, and I wish that my fellow journalists would get that through their heads. Likewise, Bardish Chagger taking back her plans to “modernise” the way that the House of Commons operates is similarly another dodged bullet – most of her plans were terrible and would make things worse, not better. Casting them as failures does a disservice to the fact that they backed down from bad promises. When it comes to Bill Morneau and his troubles, I think it also bears mentioning that the vast majority of the attacks against his tax proposals (and his own personal ethics situation) are largely unfounded, based on disingenuous framing or outright lies designed to try and wound him. The attacks have largely not been about the policies themselves (even though there were actual problems that should have been asked about more), and I think that bears some mention.

I also think that Geddes doesn’t pay enough attention to some of the backroom process changes that the government has been spearheading, particularly on the Indigenous files – many of the problems mentioned need to have capacity issues addressed before funding is increased because we have seen numerous examples of places where money was shovelled out without that capacity-building being done, and it made situations worse. Is it frustrating that some of this is going slowly? Yes. But some of the ground-up work of reforming how the whole system works, and ensuring that once more money flows that it can be spent effectively is something that we should be talking more about, because process matters. We simply don’t like to talk about it because we labour under this belief that nobody reads process stories, so we ignore them, which is why I think some of the calls about “failures” are premature or outright wrong – things are changing that we can’t immediately see. That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t happening.

Finally, there is a list of major legislation coming down the pipe, and I think it bears reminding that the focus on consultation before making some of these changes is as much about inoculating the government against criticism that was levelled against their predecessors as it was about trying to get some of this complex legislation right. Do they get it right all the time? No. There is a demonstrated record of barrelling ahead on things with good intentions and not properly thinking through the consequences *cough*Access to Information*cough* and when it blows up in their faces, they’re not really sure how to respond because they think that their good intentions count for something. I’m not sure that simply focusing on the perceived inexperience of ministers helps when it comes to trying to meaningfully discuss these issues, but here we are.

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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: Share sales and the sputtering outrage cycle

As the full-blown moral panic into what financial assets cabinet ministers own continues, we see the news that Bill Morneau has indeed sold off his shares in Morneau Shepell, for what it’s worth. Not that it will stop any of the chatter at this point – the outrage cycle continues to exhaust itself, and until some new outrage crops up, we’ll continue hearing about this as it sputters and runs on fumes.

And hey, why not find out what every other cabinet minister owns? The Star did, and I’m not really sure how edifying this whole exercise was in the end. Never mind that once again we’re reaching the point of absurdity with all of this. Are there problems with the ethics and conflict of interest legislation? Probably. Were loopholes identified previously? Yup. Did MPs do anything about it then? Nope. Do they really have an interest in closing any of them now? Probably not (and no, the NDP motion that the government voted down was not indicative of anything because it also contained a bunch of other stuff, as these things so often do, that was designed to embarrass Morneau and the government had they voted for it. Because in politics, we can’t have nice things). And once you add in all of the tall poppy nonsense, we’re left with the same tiresome moralizing that we’re always left with when it comes to “perceived” conflicts that aren’t actually there but which were invented out of whole cloth with the convenient lining up of “facts” that don’t pass the bullshit filter. And then we complain that nobody wants to get involved in politics.

Meanwhile, the Liberals are pointing out that Andrew Scheer has assets in Real Estate Limited Partnerships that are really only for the wealthy. Predictably, the Conservatives cite that he’s worth only a fraction of Morneau, and then cries of hypocrisy flew from both sides, and the outrage cycle continues to chug along.

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