Roundup: A new GG and a new NDP leader

Today is the day that Julie Payette is sworn in, and will soon be known as Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada. To that end, she has been receiving the customary signals of office over the past couple of weeks, as she takes on the roles of the chancellor (or “Principal Companion”) of the Order of Canada, the Order of Military Merit, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, and the prior of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (with note that the Queen is the fount of all Canadian honours).

Payette will have an extremely busy schedule from here on in, acting in the ceremonial capacity that state functions demand, doing diplomacy domestically and internationally, becoming a patron to charities, and keeping on top of her constitutional duties. It’s a big job, but given Payette’s accomplishments I’m quite sure that she’ll be up to the task.

Payette is also the first GG since the 1950s who comes to the position without a spouse, so she has nobody to help share the burden of appearances with, so that will be an interesting change from the past few appointments, where there has been this sense of a two-for-one deal between the GG and their highly-accomplished spouses. It will also, unfortunately, mean that more people will be attempting to download the whole “First Lady” nonsense to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau when the closest Canadian equivalent was the “Chatelaine of Rideau Hall” (when the GG was male – I’m not sure what the male of equivalent of Chatelaine is), presuming that one doesn’t count Prince Philip given that he’s actually the spouse of our head of state (and we don’t have a “First Family” because we have a royal family).

Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on the meaning of the GG as our Commander-in-Chief in Canada.

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Roundup: Signs Morneau is listening

For all of the bellyaching from those who consider the government’s tax proposals to be a done deal that may not even get enabling legislation but would instead be rammed through by way of a Ways and Means Motion, it looks like those fears are for naught. In a tele-town hall yesterday, Bill Morneau admitted that there are problem areas that need to be addressed, and they plan to take what they’ve heard in the consultations and try to fix the implementing legislation, especially when it comes to things like how it affects the sale of family farms. Economist Lindsay Tedds was listening in, and she provided a play-by-play with some instant analysis here:

https://twitter.com/LindsayTedds/status/913090762035699712

Meanwhile, Chantal Hébert wonders if Morneau can’t pull out a win that will let both sides claim victory, even if Morneau himself emerges wounded from the process. This being said, Hébert makes the point about the lack of applause from the Liberal benches, which Bob Fife made on The West Block on the weekend, and it bugs me that pundits are still trying to read into this because the Liberals stopped clapping in January 2016, except for rare verbal zingers. It’s not indicative of anything other than an attempt to restore a bit of dignity to the exercise of QP, and making a deal out of it to fit a narrative is bad form.

The Senate’s National Finance committee will examine the proposals as well, and the debate getting there contained some of the usual cheek of some particular senators.

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Roundup: A new ministerial directive

The government came out with their updated Ministerial Directive on safeguards against using information obtained through torture, tightening the language, but still keeping some ability to act on such information in very limited circumstances, much to the chagrin of the NDP and several civil society groups. After all, the NDP have been howling about this in Question Period for months now, and now that it’s finally happened, and it’s not what they’re calling for, I’m sure that we’ll be in for weeks and weeks of this yet again in QP. That being said, some national security experts are saying that the government pretty much got it right given the complexity of the situation, so I’ll leave you with Stephanie Carvin to explain it all.

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Roundup: Exit the GG

With this being Governor General David Johnston’s last week on the job, and before we see the installation of Julie Payette as his successor next week, I thought I’d share this thread from Philippe Lagassé from the weekend on the job of being GG.

Meanwhile, that interview with Maclean’s that Johnston did last week also sparked a few thoughts from Lagassé as well.

While I think that Johnston was an okay GG, I do recall there being a few…brow-raising incidents early in his tenure, which most people seem to have glossed over. One was during a cabinet swearing-in shortly after one of the Harper-era elections, where reporters at Rideau Hall noted that he was doing a lot of high-fiving with newly sworn-in cabinet ministers, and while those on the scene tried to raise the issue over Twitter, it got swallowed by the news cycle shortly. (Remember that Johnston was appointed not long after he drafted very narrow terms of reference for the Oliphant Inquiry into Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schriber, which again were curious at the time). The other incident for me that I found a bit curious was during an interview that Johnston had with George Stroumoublopoulos, in which Strombo raised the promotion of family as one of the things that Johnston was keen to promote during his time in office, and when he asked what that meant, Johnston replied that it started with the nuclear family. As someone for whom the nuclear family was never going to be an option, I found the response curious but it wasn’t really delved into. Nevertheless, Johnston’s tenure has been largely unremarkable, which was probably what those who appointed him were looking for after two previous Governors General that were media darlings and in danger of being a bit self-aggrandizing at times. We’ll see what Julie Payette brings to the role, and I look forward to her installation.

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Roundup: No, the Senate can’t fire Lynn Beyak

After another week of sustained outrage about Senator Lynn Beyak, with mounting calls for her resignation, and the exasperated commentary of those Indigenous groups that have tried to educate her as to the reality of the situation that Beyak has seen fit to comment upon, we’ve also started to see articles speculating on ways that the Senate can be rid of her. Those suggestions would be a grievous mistake.

We can all agree that what Beyak has said is odious in the extreme. But the performative outrage that she should be expelled from the Senate does cross a line because as much as we all disagree with Beyak, she hasn’t broken any laws or violated any ethics rules. She may have views that are on their face racist (though she probably doesn’t see them that way – the Conservative senators that I’ve spoken to pretty much consider her a clueless Pollyanna figure who nevertheless has deeply held Christian beliefs that inform her particularly selective world view), but those views are neither illegal nor contrary to the rules of the Senate. And we should be wary of trying to regulate Senators’ speech, because that is a gross violation of parliamentary privilege. We also can’t ignore that Beyak gives voice to an ignorant segment of the population, and when she raises these views publicly, she has given rise to a debate that such a segment of the population isn’t usually exposed to. Simply demanding her removal for it is hugely problematic for all manner of reasons.

Now, the Conservative caucus has taken the steps to minimize her role as much as possible – she is off all committees, and thus marginalized from having any position of influence. Why she remains in caucus is likely because they want to maintain their plurality in the chamber for as long as possible, and with ten current vacancies (and a couple more pending), that will likely change in the coming weeks, but for now, they are looking to maintain their numbers, and Beyak’s remaining in caucus does that for them, however they’ve sidelined her. And once the Independent Senators Group forms the plurality, the Conservatives’ impetus to keep her may change, but they may also hope that she can be redeemed, as it were, with more education (and perhaps a dose of humility). Maybe. Or, this could be an early sign of trying to phase her out, where there can still be some modicum of caucus control over her actions rather than simply turning her loose, which might actually embolden her (because then she’ll be a martyr for the cause). But let’s hope that this is the Senate’s version of phasing her out.

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Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.

For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.

Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).

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Roundup: Neglecting a vital institution

Of the things that vex me about our current government, their tacit endorsement of republican sentiment in this country is high on my list. The fact that they have allowed the Conservatives to take up and politicise the monarchist space in the Canadian landscape is shameful, and the fact that they have allowed the position of Canadian Secretary to the Queen to lapse is just one more sign of this particular antipathy. For all that he professes his affection for Her Majesty, Justin Trudeau seems to have a pretty difficult time reflecting that in his government’s particular decisions, and we will pay the price for it. That the work of arranging royal tours and being the link to Buckingham Palace is being left to the bureaucrats in Canadian Heritage is not a good thing. Everything I have heard about the job they do is not only that they are plagued with incompetence when it comes to the actual work of dealing with the Canadian Monarchy, but the tacit acknowledgement of my sources that those very bureaucrats charged with the responsibility are themselves republicans is hugely problematic. That they are the ones offering advice to the government is a very big problem. And that Trudeau appears to be neglecting this very important relationship is worrying. I know that there are monarchist Liberals in the ranks, and I hope very much that they can start to raise a fuss about this, because it’s a very worrying road that we are now on, and this kind of neglect can do lasting damage to our most fundamental institution, which we should all be very concerned about.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had an exit interview with Governor General David Johnston, and brought up the issue of debating abolishing the monarchy. Johnston, bless him, pointed out that the countries that most satisfy the needs of their people tend to be constitutional monarchies, so we’ve got that going for us.

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Roundup: Renewing the tax change battle

Those proposed tax changes around private corporations were big in the news again yesterday, given that Parliament had returned and there was a sense that the fight was about to begin in earnest, now that everyone was paying attention. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation hired a plane to fly a banner above Parliament Hill that read “No Small Biz Tax Hike,” never mind that the small business tax rate isn’t being raised and that the proposed changes aren’t going to affect the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses. Before the fight got started in earnest during QP, the NDP tried to insert themselves into the debate by trying to insist that the government should instead be attacking the “tax cheats” who use offshore tax havens – which, it must be pointed out, are also using legal instruments and thus are not actually “tax cheats” either, which is language that doesn’t help anyone.

In the Law Times, I have a story on how some lawyers are angry with the Canadian Bar Association over their opposition to the proposed tax changes – something that garnered a fair bit of attention. Global tried to work out what some of those tax changes amount to in terms of how it benefits those able to use the current provisions (though their use of the term “loopholes” rankled some of the economists they quoted). Colby Cosh takes on the semantic warfare in the proposed tax change debate.

And then the Twitter battles were renewed in earnest as well. Lisa Raitt was back at it, but Andrew Coyne took on her points with particular aplomb to show why they didn’t have any particular logic or intenral consistency.

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Roundup: Time allocation’s a-coming

Getting people worked up over the weekend was the revelation that Government House Leader Barish Chagger had sent a letter to her opposition counterparts noting that she planned to use time allocation a little more often this fall, in order to help get the government’s agenda through (with the note that things were taking longer in the Senate as a consequence of some of the changes there). And immediately, a number of pundits got upset with the whole notion, because Trudeau was supposed to be different, and time allocation is a great evil that’s used to “clamp down” on debate, and so on.

Let me be the first to remind you that in and of itself, time allocation isn’t all that bad if used responsibly. Part of why it became a big issue in the last election was because the Conservatives – and most especially then-Government House Leader Peter Van Loan – used it for everything under the sun, because they were inept at House management, and they had so abused things like omnibus legislation that the whole legislative process itself had largely broken down, hence why it became necessary to schedule by means of time allocation. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t responsible, but it got done.

Part of our problem is that all parties in this country have lost our ability to manage our debates. One of the most pressing examples is with Second Reading debate, where it’s supposed to be about the general principle of a bill – is it a good idea or not – and that’s it. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon, but no. Instead, we have to speechify into the record, and for some reason insist that on routine bills, take days for “is this a good idea or not” debate. More time should be spent at committee, but that’s often where we have been clamping down even further, because apparently, we need more terrible, scripted speeches being written into the record that aren’t debate. The logical result of this broken system of debate is that time allocation becomes a more regular feature because we’re no longer actually debating, we’re speechifying. So if we don’t want to see the government resort to time allocation, then maybe we need to start thinking meaningfully about fixing our broken debate practices so that our debate actually have meaning again. But that may be too novel of a suggestion.

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Roundup: Media as government whip

The fact that a couple of Liberal backbenchers are expressing reservations about the government’s proposed tax changes to private corporations has journalists salivating about caucus divisions – again.

Never mind that we’ve seen several examples of MPs going against the government in this current parliament – sometimes en masse (like with the genetic privacy bill), and time after time, Justin Trudeau doesn’t rise to the bait, and yet We The Media continue to try to make an issue out of it. Never mind that backbenchers holding their own government to account is how things are supposed to work in a Westminster system, because that’s their job as MPs, the media tends to remain focused on this narrative that all MPs should be in lockstep with their leadership, especially when they form government. No. That’s not true at all. And yet, Power & Politics spent several blocks on this very notion, especially with the interview with MP Wayne Long (not that there was sufficient pushback against Long’s positions, especially because lower tax rates for self-incorporation are not supposed to be a reward for risk, nor did his assertions about these tax rates being responsible for the current economic growth make any logical sense). What was notable in the eyes of the producers was that a government MP was going against the grain, and that needs to be An Issue.

As for Bill Morneau, he seems to have finally clued in that his communications plan for these changes has been nothing short of an omnishambles and is promising better information out this fall as consultations wrap up, but it’s almost too late at this point, considering the loads of utter nonsense coming out from the business community and how much traction it’s getting.

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