Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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Roundup: It’s not really a $300/tonne price

A “secret memo” has been floating around from a couple of different news organizations, which purports to claim that a $300/tonne carbon price would be required to reach our emissions reduction targets, and of course, opponents of carbon pricing are lighting their hair on fire and saying “See! The Liberals are trying to destroy the energy industry!” And so on. Except that’s not what it says. It says that if no other measures were taken, that’s what the carbon price would be, but those are the only measures we’re taking. We’re doing a bunch of things with regulations and other programmes, not to mention that carbon prices can be the incentive by which industries will innovate and look for ways to reduce their emissions as it becomes a price incentive. You know, a free market mechanism instead of the heavy hand of government regulation. Regardless, the National Post version of the story has a bunch of perspective sauce, much of it courtesy of Andrew Leach, and I’ll leave you with some of his added Twitter commentary on the matter, much of it directed to Jason Kenney and Brian Jean in Alberta who are using this as “proof” that carbon pricing is ineffective and/or some nefarious scheme.

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847618988066480132

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847619329084465152

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847623276482281472

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847623719396585473

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847624387855400963

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847625197364457473

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847626174452776962

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847626766294241281

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Roundup: Top-down incentives

To the excitement of certain federal MPs, the New Brunswick government has decided that in order to encourage more women to run for the provincial legislature (currently there are a pathetic eight out of 49 MLAs), they are going to offer richer per-vote subsidies for parties for women candidates over male ones. While there is a school of thought that insists that this is a great way to get parties to put more women on the ballot, I remain unconvinced.

Part of the problem is that this is trying to impose a top-down solution, which defeats part of the purpose of how our system is supposed to work. Candidates are supposed to come from the ground-up, and candidates should be chosen by the local grassroots, which means giving them tools to help recruit more women (and other minorities). That means removing barriers on the ground, whether it’s being persistent in asking them to run (there is research that shows that you need to ask women an average of five times before they’ll say yes – a strategy the federal Liberals successfully adopted before the last election), or arranging childcare, or ensuring that your local fundraising networks aren’t excluding them because many women candidates don’t have access to the same kinds of networks. It means organizing on the ground, not simply naming or nominating women candidates from on high and expecting people to vote for them.

I will grant you that the New Brunswick Liberals think they’re being clever by tying the increased per-vote subsidy to women as a tactic that would incentive parties to run them in ridings where they’ll get more votes rather than in no-hope ridings (because it’s true that simply offering financial incentives or penalties based on the percentage of women running often results in women carrying those no-hope ridings), but it still smacks of a top-down solution that will result in accusations of tokenism – that they’re only running women so that the party gets more money rather than because she’s the best person for the job. Top-down impositions based on perverse incentives can’t and shouldn’t be the answer. The answer should be proper grassroots engagement and understanding the barriers women face so that they can be removed at the ground level. If we can do that, combined with getting a greater number of straight white male incumbents to step aside to give more space to women and minority candidates to take their places, we’ll find a better and more sustainable engagement with the system.

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Roundup: Accountability that never was

It feels like a while since I’ve had to go to bat for the existence of the Senate, so Robyn Urback’s column in the National Post yesterday was pretty much the bat-signal shining in the sky. To wit, Urback somewhat lazily trades on the established tropes of the Senate, and takes what was a joke on the part of Senator Nancy Ruth about airplane food (cold camembert and broken crackers was a joke, people! Senators are allowed to have a dry sense of humour, last I checked) to clutch her pearls about how terribly elitist and entitled our senators allegedly are (when really, the vast majority are very much not).

Urback’s big complaint however is that despite Justin Trudeau’s promises of change to the institution, giving it more independence is apparently all a sham. There are a few problems with this hypothesis, however, and most can pretty much be chalked up to the run-of-the-mill ignorance of the institution, its history, and its proper function in our parliamentary system. Her complaints that the rules that allowed Senator Mike Duffy to claim all of those expenses is wrong, because rules have tightened since, and the fact that he can still claim for his Ottawa residence is the reality that comes with what we are asking of Senators. The problem with Duffy is that he never should have been appointed as a senator for PEI, and he was shameless enough to claim the expenses for his Ottawa residence without actually making a legitimate point of having an actual full-time residence on the island and a small condo or apartment in Ottawa for when the Senate was in session. Complaints that the Senate Liberals are simply declared to be independents while still remaining partisans ignores the substance of how they have behaved in the time since Trudeau made the declaration, and the fact that they have been kicking the government just as hard, if not harder, than the Conservatives in the Senate since Trudeau came to power. This is not an insignificant thing. But then there is Urback’s ultimate complaint, revolving around a canard about who senators are accountable to.

The Senate was never made to be accountable to parties or party leaders. The whole point of the institution, and the very reason it was constructed with the institutional independence that it has (non-renewable appointments to age 75 with extremely difficult conditions for removal) is so that the Senate can act on a check for a prime minister with a majority government, and they have numerous times since confederation. It needs to have the ability to tell truth to power without fear of reprisal, and that includes the power to kill bad bills – because they do get through the Commons more often than you’d like to think. They have never been accountable to a party or leader, and that’s a good thing. Sure, they can act in lockstep with a party out of sentimentality (or ignorance, if you look at the batches appointed post-2008), but this was never a formal check on their powers, nor should it be. If Urback or anyone else can tell me how you get an effective check on a majority prime minister any other way, I’m all ears, but the chamber has a purpose in the way it was constructed. Getting the vapours over a more formal independence is ignorant of the 149 years of history of the chamber and its operations.

Where Urback does have a point is in noting that the independent appointments board made their recommendations on the short-list without having conducted any interviews or face-to-face meetings. That is a problem that undermines the whole point of the appointment process, because it leaves the final vetting up to the PMO. One hopes that this will be corrected in the new permanent process that is being undertaken now, but there are still worrying signs about how that is being conducted. Self-nominations and people getting letters of recommendation seems like a poor way to get quality people who aren’t driven by ego and status, and we can hope that this isn’t all they’re replying on.

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Roundup: Sound the independent thought alarm

Every time I read these headlines, I sigh and shake my head a little, because here we go again. “Indigenous Liberal MP breaks ranks with government on BC’s Site C Dam” it reads. The MP is Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and by “breaking ranks,” he has questions for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans – who grants approvals for these kinds of things – and he plans to ask him in caucus next week. Oooh, someone had better sound the independent thought alarm!

It seems that most of my fellow journalists have forgotten that it’s the job of backbenchers – even those of the governing party – to hold the government (meaning cabinet) to account. They’re supposed to ask questions and to not just give them a pass. Ouellette is doing his job. But by sensationalizing it (which this headline clearly does), and portraying it as “breaking ranks” (which he’s not – there have been no votes that he’s gone off-side with) is both demeaning to his job, and it reinforces the notion that MPs are supposed to be drones parroting the lines of their leaders, which is absurd. Not only that, but We The Media nevertheless insist that MPs are supposed to do their jobs and represent their constituents and address issues and not just parrot talking points, and yet we call them out the moment that they do just that. Why? Seriously – why are we doing this? We’re actively being destructive to our democratic system when we pull this kind of nonsense. There are far better and more effective ways that this story could have been framed that don’t privilege party discipline (which again, not actually being broken here) and this notion that MPs must be in lockstep. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. And yet here we are.

Honestly, we need to do better if we expect better democratic outcomes in this country. We are part of the problem, and we should stop being just that.

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Roundup: To Leap or to cleave?

There are some interesting dynamics shaping up at the NDP convention in Edmonton, which is less about the current tensions over the leadership review vote that Thomas Mulcair will undergo on Sunday, but rather the fact that there appears to be a split developing between the Alberta NDP (and to some extent the New Brunswick arm of the party) and the federal party when it comes to debating the Leap Manifesto. Mulcair himself is in self-preservation mode as he talks about the Manifesto, and promises to live up to it if the membership decides on it, which seems to go back to his particular issues with authenticity because there is no sense of what he believes around it (though he once praised the policies of Margaret Thatcher, so perhaps one could extrapolate from there). Mulcair is now insisting that no, the Manifesto isn’t about shutting down the oil sands or forgoing pipelines, except it pretty much is, with the promise to decarbonise the economy by 2050 – as well as shutting down mining and other extractive industries and tearing up trade agreements under the rubric that they hurt local economies. Mulcair has retreated to the statement that the Manifesto doesn’t explicitly say to leave oil in the ground, but after musing to Peter Mansbridge that he would do everything in his power to go that route if it’s what the party decided, well, the damage has been done, as the Alberta party is distancing themselves, the province’s environment minister calling the federal party’s environmental plan a “betrayal,” and Rachel Notley took to the airwaves to tell Albertans explicitly that she is working to get a pipeline built. The Manifesto’s proponents, however, insist that this is necessary, and that a hard-left turn can win, and cite Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn – never mind that neither has actually won an election, and likely never could given the personal dislike for them among even their own respective parties. (Seriously – Corbyn had a caucus enemies list drawn up). So will a hard-left turn save the party? It all depends on what they want to do, whether they want to return to being only about principle and the “conscience of parliament,” pushing the Liberals to do the right thing, or if they want power and the compromises that come with it. We’ll have to see what the membership decides, and whether Mulcair fits that vision.

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Roundup: Fair Vote Canada’s shambolic release

It’s not everyday that you get a completely unhinged press release in your inbox, but holy cow did Fair Vote Canada come out with a doozy yesterday. It’s hard to know where to start with such a work of “shambolic genius,” as Colby Cosh put it.

You see, according to the geniuses at Fair Vote Canada, they have cleverly parsed that when Trudeau pledged to “make every vote count” (a boneheaded statement because every vote already counts), he was referring to their slogan, and therefore he must really advocate for Proportional Representation, and because Trudeau has said he has no pre-conceived ideas about what the outcome of the consultations on electoral reform would be, he must really mean that he’s just trying to figure out which proportional representation system to use, because that’s what he’s signalled by using their slogan. Genius, I tell you. Genius!

But Wait… There’s More!™

While referring to Parliament as “the law factory” (Seriously? Seriously?!), they started invoking the Charter to claim that “equal treatment and equal benefit under the law” must mean that Canadian citizens are entitled to having their votes represented in direct proportion to the votes cast. Which is insane and ridiculous because that’s not how our system works at all, and is completely wrong when it comes to jurisprudence. You see, the Supreme Court of Canada has already rejected this line of reasoning, both in terms of the deviation of voting power (i.e. unequal riding sizes) for the purposes of better governance, but also with attempted challenges to the First-Past-The-Post system in the Quebec courts, which were roundly rejected and which the Supreme Court of Canada refused to grant leave to appeal. That means that as far as they’re concerned, the law is settled, and for Fair Vote Canada to try and advance this line of argument is futile and wrong. Because the law is settled. But considering that the whole basis for their advocacy of PR is rooted in sore loserism at the ballot box, it makes complete sense that they are also sore losers when it comes to the judicial system as well.

Moral of the story: Fair Vote Canada has long used falsehoods and logical fallacies to advance their case. This ridiculous and completely specious release is just one more in a dishonest string of arguments they’ve made and will continue to make as this debate heats up in the coming months.

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Roundup: The casework distraction

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel has sounded the alarm that the Liberals sound like they are about to cut off the special access for MPs’ offices to inquire about immigration files in favour of the directing their inquiries to the Ministerial Inquiry Division. Rempel’s concern is that this makes it harder for MPs to deal with immigration files on behalf of constituents – casework, as it is known. The department has thus far said there is no change, but in the event that there is, I’m actually not sure that this is such a bad idea. Why? Because, quite simply, this isn’t work that MPs should be doing. They shouldn’t be service providers on behalf of the public service, and I’ve heard from some staffers that the department won’t even start looking at files until the MP’s office forwards it to them, which is both appalling and a red flag that the system isn’t working the way it should be. An MP’s job is to hold the government to account, and to do so by controlling the public purse. Their staff should be focused on this work, and helping them with legislation as it happens. The expansion of the civil service, however, has prompted the development of MPs into ombudspersons for civil service interactions, which starts getting uncomfortable because it takes away from their actual roles. The fact that you have MPs who wind up dedicating staff to dealing entirely with immigration casework is quite simply wrong, and indicative of a system not working. Making immigration casework reliant upon MPs offices – no matter how non-partisan the work is – is a half-step away from a corrupt system where who you know is the determining factor for whether your files get looked at or not. It’s a civil service job to process files – not an MP’s job. If the Liberals are trying to clamp down on this abuse of process and focus on getting the department to do their jobs, while MPs to do theirs, I don’t actually see the problem with that. It’s how things should work, and if they’re trying to right that particular ship, then all the power to them. MPs should be focusing on their actual work, which let’s face it – most of them don’t, because they don’t actually know what their job is (see: crisis of civic literacy in this country). If the government of the day takes away from their distractions (work that they actually shouldn’t be doing), then maybe we can hope that it’ll help steer their attention back toward the work they should be. But maybe I’m being a wildly optimistic dreamer again.

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Roundup: Hacker concerns and delays

The National Research Council had concerns about their IT security before the hack attack happened, and some of those concerns delayed their move to join Shared Services Canada. What the article doesn’t mention is that NRC also has a lot of legacy computer systems that wouldn’t integrate easily, and that was part of the concern with amalgamation. That said, amalgamation creates its own security risks because everything is in one place, so a well-placed hack there would have far broader implications than the current “federated” model, where individual systems can be isolated. Meanwhile, the Privacy Commissioner’s officer has confirmed that the attack breached a system that contained personal information, and they’re still assessing the damage.

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