Roundup: Muddled takes on Charter rights

The bad takes on the government’s decision to stop giving summer job grants to groups that actively oppose abortions keep rolling in, with yesterday’s winner being one particularly mystifying piece that equates this to Christians being persecuted in ancient Rome. No, seriously. But probably the most overwrought objections are those which keep insisting that “there’s no Charter right to an abortion!” Err, no, there’s not. But when you try to take away that right, you trigger other Charter rights, most notably a woman’s right to life, liberty, and security of person, or the fact that discriminating against her ability to get a medical procedure does breach her Charter rights. University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen walks us through some of those considerations here:

Emmett Macfarlane also took to Twitter to try to clarify some of the arguments in this particular case.

This having been said, it should be reiterated that yet again, this government has not done a particularly stellar job in communicating this particular policy decision, especially in how they are fuzzily defining what is a “core mandate” that would disqualify them. It shouldn’t be difficult – is this an organization that is devoted to picketing abortion clinics, or counselling women against abortions under the guise of being a support service? No? Then you can get your funding. I also think that some religious groups are being a bit hyperbolic in their concerns, egged on by the likes of Andrew Scheer, who has been torqueing this issue (as he is wont to do with any issue) so that what’s actually at stake bears no relation to what it’s being characterized as. But that’s politics, apparently.

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Roundup: Privilege case at the SCC

There is an interesting case being heard at the Supreme Court of Canada today, which goes to the heart of how laws are made in this country. An Alberta First Nation, the Mikisew Cree, applied to the Federal Court for judicial review of the 2012 Conservative budget implementation bill after its changes to environmental legislation didn’t consult them, per Section 35 of the Constitution. The problem? You can’t have the courts interfere with the legislative process. That goes to the heart of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers.

The Federal Court allowed a partial application, citing that they should have been given an opportunity to make submissions, but this was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal, which (correctly, in my view) cited that the Federal Court Act had no jurisdiction over the legislative process, and that it offended parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers, and there was an additional issue that this omnibus bill was of general application and did not apply specifically to this First Nation. The Supreme Court of Canada now gets to hear the issue and decide whether or not this should be the case in the face of the constitutional duty to consult.

While I’m sympathetic to the need to consult on these issues, particularly on issues that will affect their lands and ability to have engage with the processes that are created out of the regulator bodies that are engaged by the legislation once it is enacted, I do have a problem with the demands that any outside group be included in the drafting process. And while the current government has made a great deal of effort doing consultations before they draft bills (and there is no shortage of grousing as to how it slows down the process), there are usually plenty of opportunities to intervene once the bill is tabled and reaches committee hearings in both the Commons and the Senate. This is how parliament is supposed to work. Trying to short-circuit this has an effect on things like cabinet secrecy, and more likely, could grind the legislative process to a halt if you were dealing with a group that wanted to be obstinate. But also, it bears reiterating that parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers are not things to be trifled with, because it undermines the ability of parliament to do its work. While I’m confident that the Supreme Court will do the right thing, I do worry that this case has made it this far and could be victim of novel thinking that could do lasting harm to our institutions.

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Roundup: No knockout punch from Dawson

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

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

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

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Roundup: Unifying the prohibitions across departments

The federal government has issued new guidelines for foreign intelligence likely obtained through torture, so that it now covers the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada. This means that they are prohibited from using such information, except if it’s going to save lives either from an imminent terrorist attack or protecting Canadian troops on an overseas mission. This appears to harmonize direction handed down earlier to the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA, so that all national security agencies (which are now under the same parliamentary oversight regime and will soon be under an independent arm’s length national security oversight regime) will have the same rules and restrictions. For some, it’s reassuring that the government is taking the issue seriously, but for others, the caveat isn’t good enough, and they need to issue a full prohibition, no caveats, no exceptions, full stop. Stephanie Carvin has more reaction to the announcement here:

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Roundup: A new Chief Justice

The justice minister announced yesterday morning that the prime minister would be naming Justice Richard Wagner as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, thus both respecting the tradition of alternating between a Common Law and a Civil Law judge as the Chief, as well as picking an accomplished jurist who has 15 years left on the bench, ensuring that there is a long enough period of stability on the Court. Wagner is well respected in the Quebec courts, where he hailed from, and it is noted that he doesn’t really fit into the left-right divide – something that is not only indicative of our Canadian system, but is one of those things that people point to when they note how a Liberal PM can elevate a judge chosen by his Conservative predecessor.

A trip to the Maclean’s archives finds this piece by Paul Wells on the day that Wagner was named to the Supreme Court was also the day that Justin Trudeau threw his hat into the ring for Liberal leadership, and that both men had famous fathers in political circles. Tasha Kheiriddin notes the choice of Wagner is a safe one.

It’s also worth noting that Wagner also becomes Deputy Governor General with his elevation to Chief Justice, and he can grant royal assent to bills in the event that the GG herself is ill or absent; he opens Parliament before a Speaker is elected; and he will head the committee in charge of nominating people to the Order of Canada. The practice since 1939 also used to be that the Chief Justice would close a session of Parliament instead of the Governor General following some particular manoeuvring by Mackenzie King while the GG was out of town, until the government stopped with prorogation ceremonies. (If you ask me, they should restore the ceremonies, but with the GG doing them).

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QP: Trade, jets and jeers

The final Tuesday QP of the year, and all of the leaders were present — even past leader Thomas Mulcair was present, for a change. After each side offered statements of congratulations for their by-election wins, Andrew Scheer led off, mimi-lectern on desk, and he read some condemnation of the PM going to China and his willingness to allow foreign takeovers without security reviews. Trudeau chose instead to offer congratulations to the by-election winners, as well as everyone who put their names forward. Scheer offered his own breathy congratulations, then accused the PM of erratic behaviour and incompetence on the trade file. Trudeau insisted that they worked hard to get deal that “work good” for Canadians, and that things like environmental and labour rights be respected. Scheer sniped that the PM comes home empty handed, and then raised another instance of someone complaining about Kent Hehr’s comments. Trudeau said that the minister took the allegations seriously and apologized. Scheer then moved onto the fighter jet question, and the decision to purchase used interim jets. Trudeau said that the reality was that the military needed new jets years ago but the previous government didn’t deliver, but his government had launched an open process with interim jets to fill capacity gaps. Scheer noted the problems with those jets identified by the Australian Auditor General, and offered Trudeau an old minivan. Trudeau reiterated that the previous government botched their processes. Guy Caron was up next, and was concern trolling about the problems with getting new officers of parliament. Trudeau noted the open, transparent process, and that he had confidence in the nominees put forward. Caron insisted that the process was not transparent, and demanded the names on the selection committees and short lists. Trudeau said that the appointment processes take time, and have put in place processes that people could trust. Nathan Cullen repeated the same question with added sanctimony in English, and Trudeau reiterated that they would continue to consult with the opposition on appointments, and then after another round of the same, and Trudeau said that if they didn’t have confidence in the nominee they should just say so.

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Roundup: A couple of reality checks

As we head into the final week of the Commons’ sitting for 2017, there have been a couple of recurring themes in the past few weeks that could each use some good dose of Stephanie Carvin. The first issue remains that of returning foreign fighters, and the way in which the Conservatives keep repeating in Question Period that the Liberal strategy is apparently “poetry and podcasts,” which a) nobody has seriously suggested, and b) deliberately confuses preventative deradicalization programmes with those geared toward rehabilitating those who have returned from foreign warzones who may not have been active combatants (most of whom are dead by this point).

And then there is the Prime Minister’s trip to China, where a free trade deal wasn’t secured, which Carvin is an acknowledged China sceptic about from a national security standpoint, particularly because China doesn’t like to play fair, and will use tactics that include imprisonment and de facto hostage-taking in order to try and get their way in trade disputes.

Let’s hope that the opposition has a chance to listen to some of what Carvin has to say before they ask some more…dubious questions this week.

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QP: Lebouthillier has had enough of your accusations

With Justin Trudeau on his way back from China, and Andrew Scheer again absent, it was left up to Lisa Raitt to once again carry the day. Raitt led off, concerned about tax changes affecting small businesses, and demanded specifics. Dominic LeBlanc reminded her that they were cutting small business taxes, and details on income sprinkling would come before January 1st. Raitt then mocked the government for spending on advertising, to which Scott Brison got up to remind her that when she was in government, they spent a lot more on advertising, while the current government changed the rules to ensure that it wouldn’t be partisan. Raitt raised the concerns of small business owners in New Brunswick communities she visited, and LeBlanc, himself from the province, noted that the member of that riding had already made those concerns known and the government was listening. Alain Rayes was up next to offer the concern trolling on small business taxes in French, and LeBlanc assured him that they listened to concerns before they are implemented. Rayes tried again, and LeBlanc assured him the details would be known shortly. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and railed about the American decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and wanted louder condemnation from the Canadian government. Mélanie Joly assured him that they were allies of Israel and that the status of Jerusalem could only be determined in larger negotiations. Hélène Laverdière tried again in English, and got the same answer from Joly in English. Caron was back up, and referred to the Auditor General’s report on the CRA and wondered when they would be accountable to Canadians. Diane Lebouthillier listed off the measures that were being undertaken to correct the situation, and Caron tried again in English, and Lebouthillier repeated her response.

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Roundup: Feeding the fear industry

The Conservatives’ final Supply Day motion of the year, and they chose to use it to both demand that the government bring any returning ISIS fighters to Canada to justice, while simultaneously condemning them for the Omar Khadr settlement – you know, the issue that they were going to hammer the government hard on back in September which didn’t materialize.

As you can expect, the arguments were not terribly illuminating, and lacking in any particular nuance that the topic should merit, but that’s not exactly surprising. Still, some of the lines were particularly baffling in their ham-fistedness.

Amidst this, the CBC published a piece about Canada’s refusal to engage in extrajudicial killings of our own foreign fighters out of the country, asking lawyers whether Canadian law actually prevents it, which not unreasonably has been accused of creating a debate out of nothing.

And this is really the key point. Treating issues like this one in a ham-fisted manner, whether it’s with a Supply Day motion designed to fail, or a debate created out of nothingness, is playing into the fear industry that we really should be trying to avoid. This is not the kind of nuanced debate that we should be having, which hurts everyone in the long run.

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Roundup: The abuse of “appearance”

Breaking! Ethics Commissioner wants to talk to Bill Morneau about that share sale! To which I immediately yawn and say, “Yeah, and?” Because we are beyond the point where any of these stories are actually advancing the story in a substantive manner, and we’re well past innuendo, and are now onto a full-on pile-on in the attempts to make something, anything, stick.

This attempt to try and create some issue around insider trading has been nothing short of ludicrous because none of the facts bear the slightest scrutiny, nor does any of their internal logic hold-up in the face of the other allegations. If he was really interested in “insider trading” (which isn’t actually possible from his position), why wouldn’t he wait to sell those shares until he tabled Bill C-27 and Morneau Shepell’s share prices spiked (temporarily)? But really, none of it makes adds up, and Andrew Coyne constructed a pretty good takedown of the allegation here. And Mary Dawson saying she’ll give Morneau a call sounds pretty pro forma here, given that this is in response to yet another of Nathan Cullen’s demands that she look into his dealings in the vague hope of her finding something, anything, that Cullen can use to any tactical advantage. But as both the opposition and some of the more mediocre journalists in the Gallery continue to carry on this campaign, it has the very definite potential to backfire – especially as Morneau is taking the gloves off now that his father is being dragged into the fray. As Terrence Corcoran points out, the Conservatives are the ones who are now acting unethically, not Morneau (and I’m sure you could add a couple of aforementioned journalists to this list, because their reporting on this has been anything but responsible).

But when this short thread from Howard Anglin was pointed out last night, it became clear to me where the real problem lies.

The problem here is not Bill Morneau – it’s Justin Trudeau, and the high-minded language he put into the mandate letters about being seen to be conduct the affairs without the appearance of conflict. What that turned out to be was an invitation for abuse. Because of the word “appearance,” all that anyone – opposition MP or mediocre journalist trying to make a big score – has to do is line up unrelated or conflated facts in a completely disingenuous manner and say “See! It looks like a conflict! This goes against the mandate letter!” Never mind that none of the allegations, whether it’s the cash-for-access (which wasn’t really cash for access) caterwauling months ago, or this Morneau nonsense now, bear up under the slightest bit of scrutiny – they are simply counting on it being the appearance of a conflict, and crying foul. We’re no longer dealing with issues of substance, but rather, the manufacture of optics in deliberately dishonest ways, because Justin Trudeau gave them an open invitation to. This is the state of our democratic discourse at the end of 2017. We should be embarrassed.

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