Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Ontario’s “basic income” scheme a bit suspect

The province of Ontario decided that it was going ahead with a three-year pilot project around basic incomes in three municipalities around the province – Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay, each testing different circumstances and local conditions. But there are problems with the way this is all designed, which Kevin Milligan (who has been studying this issue) outlines:

In other words, this isn’t really basic income, which makes it all that much harder to actually evaluate its efficacy, and if it’s not displacing existing welfare or benefit programmes, then it’s not really recouping those costs which makes this hideously expensive. And that’s really been the biggest problem with basic income proposals – the cost. While the idea is that they would displace current benefit programmes, there is less money to be had in cutting the red tape and bureaucracy than one might think, and I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates’ idea of taxing robots to pay for basic income for the workers they displace isn’t really feasible either.

Oh, and then there are the political considerations.

With an election not too far off in this province, we’ve seen a few moves by this government to try and out-left the NDP in places, hoping to cobble together the same sort of winning voter base that they managed to in their last election, and which their federal counterparts similarly managed in 2015. While I get the merits of basic income, I remain dubious of its feasibility, especially when this pilot project appears to be so poorly designed. But then again, I’m not an economist.

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Roundup: Making a martyr of herself

If there’s one thing that we’re talking about right now that’s not the interminable Standing Orders debate, it’s Senator Lynn Beyak, of the “well intentioned residential schools” remarks, which came shortly after her incomprehensible remarks about trans people while saying that good gays don’t like to cause waves. And after being removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee, she put out a press release that didn’t really help her cause.

Of course, the more we talk about Beyak in the media and demand that Something Must Be Done about her, the more it’s going to embolden her and her supporters. The fact that she’s starting to martyr herself on the cause of “opposing political correctness” is gaining her fans, including Maxime Bernier, whom she is supporting in the leadership. Bernier says he doesn’t agree with her statement about residential schools, but he’s all aboard her “political correctness” martyrdom. Oh, and it’s causing some of the other Conservative senators to close ranks around her, because that’s what starts to happen when someone on their team is being harassed (and before you say anything, my reading of Senator Ogilvie’s “parasites” comment was more dark humour in the face of this situation than anything, and reporters taking to the Twitter Machine to tattle and whinge makes We The Media look all the worse).

But seriously, Beyak is not an important figure. She’s marginal at best within her own party, and her comments have marginalized her position further. But the more that people continue to howl about her, or post e-petitions demanding that the government remove her (which is unconstitutional, by the way), the more she turns herself into a martyr on this faux-free speech platform that is attracting all manner of right-wing trolls, the more she will feel completely shameless about her words. We’ve shone the spotlight, but sometimes we also need to know when to let it go and let obscurity reclaim her.

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Roundup: Staffers defend Canadian presidentialism

Andrew Coyne’s column on reverting to a system of caucus selection of party leaders got a lot of pushback over the Twitter Machine on Saturday, and curiously, those most in favour of retaining our current bastardized system of membership-selection were those who currently or formerly worked in the PMO (as well as a couple of current leadership candidates who don’t currently have seats in the House of Commons, which isn’t surprising seeing as they’d be excluded from such an exercise and well, they have egos to stroke given their current leadership ambitions).

And this presidentialization creep is what really gets under my skin, because it’s those who benefit from unearned power – the people in the PMO (less kids in short pants these days than they were under the previous government) who are the most ardent defenders of the system, and using this faux democratic mandate of the 150,000 “supporters” of the party as justification. What none of them bring up is the fact that the PM is unaccountable to those members in any real sense, and certainly unaccountable to the caucus he leads, and that’s a very big problem. And no, a system like that proposed in Democratizing the Constitution of membership selection/caucus removal would never work in practice because unless the method of selection matches the method of removal, there is a legitimacy problem, not to mention this is what happened with both Greg Selinger in Manitoba and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and look at where both of them are today. It’s not pretty, and it’s bad for our Westminster system. Caucus selection is really the system we need to revert to if we want accountable leaders and empowered MPs who aren’t being cowed by centralized leaders and their staffers, and we won’t get that now, especially if those staffers are all over the Twitter Machine trying to defend their turf.

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Roundup: The Luddite debate

The NDP held their second leadership debate yesterday in Montreal on the theme of youth, and the first part of the event went pretty much as expected. All four candidates went on endlessly about the need for free tuition without actually seeming to grasp the underlying issues with such a pledge – not only that in Canada, this is an area of provincial jurisdiction (and no, it’s not as easy as giving the provinces a whack of cash and telling them “this is for free tuition!” because watch what happens when you start putting strings on provincial spending), and the fact that there are always limited resources no matter how you slice it. That means that if you’re offering free tuition, that tends to mean you either need to raise the bar for entrance to universities so that it’s higher and weeds people out, or you water everything down and the quality of the education you’re offering for free declines because systems have only so much capacity and you’re not going to find an infinite number of good profs who are willing to make the smaller salary dollars you’re able to offer in order to keep tuition free for all. It’s basic economic theory.

The other issues paid a great deal of lip service were precarious work, and automation, and while there was a lot of talk about it, I’m not sure there were a lot of answers. Just decrying precarious work doesn’t mean that the government has the power to mandate that there be full-time employment, especially when the problem is in part because of demographics (as in, there aren’t enough Boomers retiring fast enough for jobs to be taken up by Millennials in a serious capacity) and the fact that the economy is restructuring itself and we haven’t arrived at sustainable models for a number of fields yet, particularly when some of those jobs bump up against other Millennial maxims like “information wants to be free” and nobody wanting to have to pay for content that they nevertheless want to be paid to create. But this also fits in with the question of automation, which the candidates didn’t have much to answer with either.

Being worried about automation while at the same time insisting that you want “value-added” jobs and the kinds of manufacturing jobs that we saw in the fifties and sixties is kind of like the Trump promise to return to coal-fired electricity, which no longer makes sense in the age of cheap natural gas. Those kind of jobs aren’t going to exist because there’s no economic rationale for them, particularly when our economy is moving more toward being service-based. Not to mention, automation is largely taking over the most menial of tasks, which is why it’s not a bad thing that it’s happening. And sure, there are differing ways to deal with it, from skills retraining (as the Liberals are trying to move toward with aspects of their new budget) to basic income (which Guy Caron is proposing), but that may not in the end be feasible. But you can’t just say that you’ll ban automation or tax it in the hopes of supporting displaced workers, while at the same time demanding greater innovation because things don’t work that way. Innovation will demand disruption, which these candidates seem to want do avoid. If things did with without disruption, we’d still all be labouring on farms. And that’s why I found the leadership candidates to be largely unconvincing on this topic. It is an issue we’ll have to deal with, but you can’t just wish for old manufacturing jobs to come back as the answer. It’s not going to happen.

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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: Stop coveting the CBO

Given the insanity taking place within the Trumpocalypse with the current debate over reforming their health insurance legislation, the Congressional Budget Office’s figures have been at the centre of the debate. Chris Selley penned a column yesterday to praise this island of sanity with the maelstrom, and wonders what a better funded Parliamentary Budget Officer could do in Canada.

To this, I must say nope. Nope, nope, nope.

Nope.

Why? Because we are already lousy with unaccountable officers of parliament who are usurping the role that MPs are supposed to be playing. As it stands, MPs have already started been fobbing their homework off onto the PBO, and then hiding behind his independent analysis and then using it as their cudgel. It is driven by the impulse that they don’t think they can win the debate on the issues, so they would rather have those officers win it for them, and the PBO is certainly no exception.

But independent officers are not infallible. That F-35 cost figures that Selley cites? While Kevin Page’s figures proved to be in the ballpark, his methodology was haphazard and any defence analyst you asked would tell you as much. And we’ve seen how the Auditor General’s report on the Senate was deeply flawed that both former Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie and the lawyer that the Senate hired to review the report could scarcely believe it. And of course We The Media eat it up as well, because it’s “independent” and therefore believable, even when it may not actually be right, and the constant deference to these agents is actually harming democracy.

Yes, we have problems with government giving figures that are useable, and the previous government was masterful at changing the accounting rules constantly to keep everyone, PBO included, from trying to figure them out. That’s a problem, but it’s not one that we should expect the PBO to solve. Rather, MPs from all parties should be demanding clear figures, and should use their powers to compel disclosure, whether it’s on committees or Order Paper questions. The problem is that not enough MPs bother to do it, in part because they don’t actually know that their primary job is to hold the government (meaning Cabinet) to account. And simply excusing their ignorance and appointing an independent officer to do it for them doesn’t fix the problem – it exacerbates it.

Also, quit looking at Washington and thinking that we can import their institutions and practices into our system. I know the CBO was the thought when the PBO was created, but our systems are different, and you can’t just graft a similar model on. Stop trying. We have our own system and processes that we should be focusing on improving, and that starts with educating ourselves about our own processes.

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Roundup: Expulsion isn’t rocket science

All day, we’ve been told that Senate clerks are “scouring the constitution” to find a “loophole” that will allow them to expel Senator Don Meredith, and even when they get former law clerks on television who’ve said clearly that yes, the Senate can do this, they still try to go “a ha, but they never did with…” name a scandalous former Senator, and in those cases, they resigned before the Senate had a chance to expel them. Suffice to say, a whole lot of reporters are being deliberately obtuse in order to create a false sense of drama around this.

The simple fact of the matter is that Parliament is self-governing, and it has the powers it needs to expel members if need be. Those are parliamentary privileges, and they have been exercised in the past in the Commons, as James Bowden’s research has shown, and those privileges would indeed extend to the Senate. It’s not sexy or rocket science, but people need to calm down and let the process work itself out.

Adam Dodek says that the Senate needs to move quickly on dealing with Meredith if they hope to regain the public trust. And that may be the case, but we also don’t want to be too hasty, given the ham-fisted and poor manner in which the suspensions of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were handled, and the truth of the matter is that the Senate is on March break. The ethics committee is coming back a week early to deal with the matter, so they are moving quickly but they can’t simply act rashly and in the heat of the moment, which I think will be the danger in order to keep from invoking the ire of an impatient public, egged on by a media demanding that the story move ahead quickly before people lose interest.

Meanwhile we’re also seeing a lot of second-guessing about the role that Meredith played within the Independent Senators Group, and how he was described as having a “leadership position” within it. Indeed, Meredith was elected to one of four “coordinating positions” within the nascent quasi-caucus, in its early days after the first round of independent appointments when the group was still getting on its feet and Meredith had more legislative experience than most of the members of the group. That being said, he had very little actual standing within the group and was certainly not viewed as any kind of actual leader by anyone I’ve spoken to. I have sympathy for their position that he was innocent until proven guilty and that it took the Senate Ethics Officer two years to reach her conclusions, but on the other hand, we could still see this train on the tracks. It’s too bad the ISG didn’t insulate themselves a little better from this, but in all, I don’t think the damage looks as bad from out here.

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Roundup: Recall legislation nonsense

Over at Loonie Politics, fellow columnist Jonathan Scott wonders if recall legislation might not be a good thing for ethical violations, and cites the examples of Senators Don Meredith, Lynn Beyak, and a York Region school trustee who used a racial slur against a Black parent. While I’m suspicious about recall legislation to begin with, two of the examples are completely inappropriate, while the third was an example of someone who resigned a few days later, making the need for such legislation unnecessary in the first place.

Recall legislation for senators is a bit boggling, first of all, because they weren’t elected to the position, and they have institutional independence so that they can speak truth to power and have the ability to stop a government with a majority precisely so that they can hit the brakes on runaway populism if need be. Recall legislation would be fed by that similar populist sentiment, which is a problem. I’m also baffled, frankly, how anyone could conceivably consider Meredith and Beyak in the same sentence. Meredith abused his position to sexually lure a minor, while Beyak said some stupid and odious things under the rubric of religious sentiment (i.e. at least some residential school survivors stayed Christians, so that apparently justifies everything). The two are not comparable, nor is Beyak’s example any kind of an ethical violation, nor am I convinced that it’s an offence worthy of resignation because at least there’s the possibility that she can learn more about why what she said was so wrong-headed. Sure, people are upset with it, while others are performing outrage over social media because that’s what we do these days, but trying to channel that sentiment into recall legislation raises all kinds of alarm bells because even if you had a fairly high bar or findings from an ethics officer to trigger these kinds of recall elections (and the suggested 2500 signatures of constituents is too low of an added bar), temporary performed outrage demanding action this instant would be constantly triggering these kinds of fights. If you think there are too many distractions in politics to the issues of the day, this would make it all the worse.

As for Meredith, while he is too shameless to resign of his own accord, the rest of the Senate is not likely to let this issue slide for too long. The only question is really how effectively they can implement a system of due process by which Meredith can plead his case before them and respect the rules of natural justice before they hold a vote to vacate his seat based on the findings of the Senate Ethics Officer. Demanding recall legislation after a story is only a couple of days old is the height of foolishness. The Senate doesn’t sit for another two weeks, which is time that frankly they’ll need to get their ducks in a row so that they don’t come back half-cocked and try and ham-fist the process like they did with Duffy/Wallin/Brazeau back in the day. Meredith will get his due, and we won’t need the threat of ridiculous legislation to try and keep politicians in line.

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Roundup: A different debate

This weekend we finally saw our first NDP leadership debate, which was actually more watchable than pretty much any Conservative debate we’ve had so far, so that’s something. Having only four candidates on stage instead of fourteen makes a difference, as does having everyone already in caucus rather than coming in from the outside, and no one so far seems to be running against their own caucus, so that’s also something. As with any NDP debate, however, it was less “debate” and more statements by which they could vehemently agree with and then say “I agree, and let me take that further and say…”

The only real cleavage that there was over the course of the event was over the role of the resource economy and if there could be a case made for pipelines, and a couple of the candidates were more strident than others. Otherwise, there was a lot of the usual key words and phrases that signal their audience, like the “neoliberal agenda,” the growing one percent (err, except they’re not growing in Canada, and have in fact been shrinking), “unfair trade deals,” and renegotiating NAFTA. If one wasn’t careful, it could be mistaken for a Trump rally.

The format and fewer candidates did allow for a number of non-policy related questions, but some of them were a bit…suspicious, if I can use the word, like they were designed to ensure that they were reinforcing in-group credentials vouching. Maybe it’s just me, but it felt a bit creepy in places.

Meanwhile, I would encourage you to read the very trenchant observations from John Geddes, who nailed pretty much what each of the four candidates are running on out of the gate.

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