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: On foreign money in federal elections

Yesterday I mentioned a certain moral panic disguised as “journalism” authored by former Calgary Herald opinion editor Licia Corbella when it came to accusations about foreign money trying to influence the 2015 election. Anyone reading the piece should have clued into the fact that it was a hit-job, from the sympathetic portrayal of Joan Crockatt, the lack of corroborating evidence, the one-sided sources, oh, and the fact that it repeated the canard that the Tides Foundation was some kind of influence clearing house without actually digging into those numbers beyond their top-lines. And too many outlets ran with the story as is on the first day, and really only started to question it yesterday. VICE did a pretty good takedown of the claims, and when some of the other outlets started asking questions about that “report” with the accusations, the excuses for why it couldn’t be produced were…dubious to say the least.

This notion that there is a problem with foreign money influencing elections via third parties is also dubious, and while the Commissioner of Elections said he wanted the legislation tightened during a Senate committee hearing, a former lawyer form Elections Canada disputes some of the Commissioner’s interpretation of the law.

If more people had closely read Corbella’s piece in the first place, I think we could have avoided the pile on of hot takes that swiftly resulted on Monday. As a columnist, Corbella was a known fabulist, which is why this piece of “journalism” should have been treated with utter suspicion from the start.

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Roundup: Neglecting our Canadian Sovereign

It was Victoria Day yesterday, which is a uniquely Canadian holiday that both celebrates the “mother” of Confederation, Queen Victoria, as well as acts as the official birthday of the Canadian monarch (no matter when their natural person’s birthday is). You might find it strange to find that in his message for Victoria Day, the Governor General didn’t reference the Queen of Canada at all, but rather the forthcoming Sapphire Jubilee and her being the first British monarch to achieve it.

Why does this matter? Because the Queen of Canada is a separate legal entity from the Queen of the United Kingdom, and because the holiday celebrated the Queen of Canada’s official birthday. Now, there were quibbles with my tweet pointing out the fact that the GG made the omission, but I maintain that the bigger point stands.

And Lagassé is correct in that – the emphasis is curious, and part of a troubling trend from the Canadian government, which has only exacerbated since the Liberals came to power.

While the Conservatives did a lot to bring some of the focus back to the Canadian monarchy after a couple of decades of neglect and the conscious effort to “Canadianize” a number of institutions by dropping their Royal monikers (like the Royal Canadian Navy being changed into “Maritime Command” for example, until the Conservatives restored its original name), they too did their own damage to the institution, primarily when they made the utterly boneheaded decision to pass legislation that when it came to changing the line of succession to include female heirs and those who are Catholics, they merely assented to British legislation rather than amending it in Canada. In other words, they turned what was control over our own Crown and Sovereign, and undid all of the progress we’ve made since the Statute of Westminster in 1931, when the Canadian Crown became separate from the UK Crown, and turned us essentially into Tuvalu when it comes to our relationship with the Crown, and thus far, the Courts have sided with the government when it comes to the challenges of this legislation, because the appreciation of the distinction and the role of the Canadian Crown remains largely ignorant to the vast majority of Canadian society, the judiciary included. (Incidentally, that was another bill that the Commons passed at all stages with no debate, and while it was debated in the Senate rather than veto it and tell the government that the proper way to change the law of succession is by way of constitutional amendment).

Meanwhile, the current government hasn’t named a new Canadian Secretary to the Queen since the last one retired, and has been letting the republican bureaucrats in the Department of Canadian Heritage run roughshod over the relationship with the Royal Family. And because the vast majority of Canadians don’t know any better, we’re slowly killing our distinct Crown and turning ourselves back into a mere colony. So yeah, it does matter that the GG couldn’t get this very basic thing right, and we should be upset about it.

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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Roundup: Once again, the problem is not PMQs

Apparently the topic hasn’t been exhausted, so here we go with round thirty-seven (or thereabouts). We start with Aaron Wherry comparing what happened in Westminster last Wednesday, where Prime Minister Theresa May was on her feet in the Commons for some three-and-a-half hours as she went directly from PMQs to announcing the Brexit plans, to taking questions on it, in a way that the rules in our own House of Commons doesn’t allow. And bully for Wherry that he acknowledged that such a thing couldn’t happen here under our present Standing Orders, but doesn’t quite get to the crux of the issue that our parliamentary culture is so diminished and bastardised when it comes to speaking and debate that even if we changed the rules to allow for such things, that it likely wouldn’t help. He does, however, acknowledge that Trudeau could start making changes around taking all questions one day a week, or announcing more policy in the Commons, if he really wanted to, without having to change the rules.

Chantal Hébert, meanwhile, notes that Trudeau has not really made himself at home in the Commons, starting with doing the bare minimum as an opposition leader, to not really engaging meaningfully when he does show up now, he and his ministers answering in bland pabulum delivered with a smile. From there, she wonders if this disinterest has manifested itself into a kind of tone-deafness as they try to push the proposed changes to the Standing Orders in as poor a manner as they tried to handle the electoral reform debate.

The Globe and Mail’s unsigned editorial on the proposed changes, however, is thin gruel when it comes to engaging on the issue, buying into these notions that the proposed changes are all about crushing the rights of the opposition, not quite articulating the actual role of parliament, while also not grasping what “programming motions” actually are, while propagating this notion that QP only counts if the PM is there, as though the rest of the Cabinet is unworthy of media attention (which really says more about their own perceptions than it does the PM if you ask me). But I’ve said my piece on this again and again, so I’ll let Wherry field this one, because he hits the nail on the head exactly with why this pervasive opinion is part of the problem.

In other words, Globe and Mail, you’re part of the problem, so stop pointing fingers. As for the UK’s practice of ministerial questions, there’s this:

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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: Candour versus transparency

The government announced yesterday that their proposed changes to the Access to Information Act won’t be coming as quickly as promised because they “wanted to get it right.” Now far be it for me to be completely cynical about this in asserting that they never intended to fulfil this promise, because I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, but I will also say that any Conservative crowing about how terrible the Liberals are for this delay *cough*Pierre Lemieux*cough* needs to give their head a shake because the Liberal have already made changes that far exceed what the Conservative did on this file. This all having been said, Howard Anglin makes some interesting points about this, and whether it’s desirable for them to go ahead with some of these changes.

As much as my journalistic sensibilities want greater transparency, I also do feel a great deal of sympathy for the point about candour. Having too many things in the open has had an effect on the operation of parliament and times where parties could quietly meet and come to a decision with little fuss has turned into a great deal of political theatre instead (which is one reason why I’m wary of opening up the Board of Internal Economy too much). We want functional institutions, and that does require candour, and not all desires to keep that candour and ability to speak openly from being public is more than just a “culture of secrecy” – there is a deal of self-preservation involved. While it would be nice if we could wave a magic wand and the line by which this tension is resolved would be clearly demarcated lines, but that’s not going to happen. This is going to be muddled through the hard way.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt writes about that culture of secrecy that exists within the capital – an even within Cabinet jealously guarding information – and how it’s an ongoing fight to keep from letting that culture keep going unchallenged.

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Roundup: Dealing with problematic senators

While the focus one on one senator’s words regarding residential schools yesterday, a bombshell dropped late in the day with the Senate Ethics Officer’s report into allegations that Senator Don Meredith had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl, and that will no doubt fill the airwaves tomorrow. But while everyone is baying for blood, let me offer a few bits of context.

First, with Senator Beyak and her remarkably clueless statements about residential schools, no, the government cannot ask for her resignation as the NDP are demanding they do. The Senate has institutional independence in order to act as a check on government, so they are powerless. As for the demands that the Conservatives kick her out of caucus, that might do more harm than good because at least within a caucus, she can be managed and hopefully do less harm, and perhaps guided into some education on the subject rather than simply cutting her loose and empowering her to keep making this an issue. And while I think her statement is odious, I also don’t think she meant malice by it, but rather that she is utterly clueless by virtue of framing the issue entirely through her Christianity, and that’s a world view that she’s entitled to hold, no matter what we may think of it. (And seriously, don’t make her a martyr for her religious beliefs). So while I get that there are a lot of people who want to perform outrage and demand her head, I think everyone needs to calm down a little and think through what they’re demanding.

As for Meredith, the report now goes to the Senate ethics committee, but given that the Senate isn’t sitting for the next two weeks, we’ll have to be patient. There are already demands that he be removed, but without a criminal conviction, that’s very difficult to do, and the police opted not to charge him for this (possibly because the complainant stopped cooperating with the police, but I’m not 100 percent sure on that fact, so take it with a grain of salt). With the Ethics Officer’s report, however, one could hope that the police could reopen their investigation. That said, removing a sitting senator without a criminal conviction is almost impossible. There is the possibility that the Senate could vote unanimously to declare his seat vacant, but it’ll be a high bar for other senators to reach that point, because they’re going to want to ensure that he gets due process (which Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were not necessarily given at the time of their expulsion). But one can be sure that the Senate will want to take their time and deliberate on this one, so while it’s possible that we’ll see a suspension motion when they return, it could be a while before they decide on how to deal with him on a longer-term or permanent basis.

And barring that, maybe the Senate needs to consider a policy of phasing out certain senators…

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Roundup: About that two percent

Part of the preoccupying discussion over the weekend has been comments that Donald Trump made regarding the two percent of GDP spending target as a NATO obligation, and his threats to be less responsive to the alliance unless countries pony up to that level. Never mind that it’s not an actual obligation (Article 5 – the notion that an attack on one member country is an attack on all – is the actual core of the alliance), it’s become a fixation, and that could be a problem for Canada, no matter the fact that we actually show up and do the heavy lifting. To translate heavy lifting, it means that we haven’t been afraid of doing the dirty work, and getting involved in the actual fighting, as with Afghanistan, in part because we have a system of government that allows the government of the day to authorise it without bogging it down in legislative votes or in coalition negotiations where the reluctance to put troops into harm’s way means that most NATO countries wind up deploying troops with very restrictive caveats as to what they can and can’t do, and deploying them to areas where they are less likely to see active combat. (This, incidentally, is generally another caution about PR governments, but I’m sure there are those who would say that this is a feature and not a bug. Those people would be overly idealistic). That heavy lifting should count for something beyond just spending levels.

Paul Wells walks us through some of the history of the two percent target, and why it’s a poor measure of results, as well as some theorizing about why Donald Trump is fixating on that target as much as he is. Likewise, NATO scholar Stephen Saideman engages in some two percent myth-busting here. And Philippe Lagassé offers some additional thoughts about those spending targets and what could be a better measure.

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Roundup: M-103’s ongoing morass

Some of the nonsense around M-103 and the Conservatives’ competing supply day motion that “all lives matters” the Islamophobia debate, continues to churn, with the Peel Regional Police announcing that they have added patrols and additional protection to MP Iqra Khalid following the revelation of the level of threats and harassment that she’s received over tabling the motion – basically proving her own point about the problem of Islamophobia that needs to be addressed before we have a repeat of the Quebec City shooting. But adding to the morass is when one of her Liberal colleagues, Chandra Arya, said that what happened with the Quebec City shooting was a “direct result” of the kind of dog whistle politics that the Conservatives and the Parti Québécois have been engaging in, with talks of niqab bans and barbaric cultural practices tip lines. That, obviously, has yet more people up in arms over the whole debate – a debate which prompted a “protest” outside of a Toronto mosque yesterday where people demonstrated that they were totally concerned about the vague language of “Islamophobia” and were really concerned with free speech rights, as they held up signs calling for Muslims to be banned from Canada – once again, proving the whole point of M-103.

Susan Delacourt contrasts the Conservatives’ two faces, cooperative on trade, but feeding demagoguery when it suits their needs. Paul Wells notes the Liberals’ ability to force Conservatives to deal with dilemmas like the one of M-103. Adam Radwanski chronicles the party’s collapsing big tent in the face of the rise in populist demagoguery. Andrew MacDougall warns the Conservatives about the dangers of peddling cynicism instead of building trust. Andrew Coyne writes about the importance of free speech and the problems with government-sponsored chills on it – which M-103 is not, by the way.

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