Roundup: The good news rollouts

The Liberals’ planned rollout of all kinds of “good news” announcements for Small Business Week – reductions in the small business tax rate by 2019, and changes to their planned amendments to Canadian-Controlled Private Corporation (CCPC) rules to crack down on those who use them to avoid paying taxes – were very nearly overshadowed by a Globe and Mail article that cried out that Bill Morneau hadn’t put his shares into a blind trust after all. As it turns out, this was largely a non-story – Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner, who felt that because of his particular share structure that he wouldn’t need a blind trust but an ethics screen instead – though there are some added complications around it (see Glen McGregor’s tweets). This after the “revelation” about Morneau’s French villa – not that he had forgotten to disclose it, because he had already – just that he didn’t disclose the particular ownership structure, which is a French corporate structure not uncommon with the ownership of non-commercial real estate, known as a Société Civile Immobilière. Again, a non-story that the opposition (and certain media outlets) pounced upon, trying to make a bigger deal out of them than was merited.

And then there was the Prime Minister’s tax cut announcement at that Stouffville restaurant, and the somewhat bizarre behaviour by Trudeau in the Q&A period after where he tried to answer questions directed at Morneau (no doubt trying to keep control of the message and not let it get railroaded by the non-stories about his villa and shares, but it came off as smarmy). And back in Ottawa, his backbench critics seemed mollified by the morning’s announcements, so we’ll see if that holds in the days ahead. (Not to be outdone by all of the Liberal press shenanigans, Andrew Scheer walked out on a press conference when asked about his former campaign manager’s association with Rebel Media.)

Meanwhile, neither Chantal Hébert nor Andrew Coyne are impressed with the theatrics of this government’s attempt to change the channel on the pummelling they’ve received.

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Roundup: An involuntary nomination

The outcome at the Status of Women committee was not unexpected, had as much sulking and grousing as was to be expected. In a public and not secret vote, the Liberals and NDP members of the committee rejected the Conservatives’ choice of Rachael Harder to chair the committee, and when the Liberals nominated Karen Vecchio in her place, Vecchio tried to back out but was overruled, and those same Liberal and Conservative members voted her in.

And then the bellyaching began. A sour press release was issued about how this was somehow about “bullying and intimidation” of some poor young woman (which is a ridiculous characterisation), but that they would accept the democratic will of the committee. And the pundit class took to Twitter to decry how bizarre it was that a woman was being forced to take the chair of a committee that she didn’t want. I’m not exactly sympathetic to these cries, because this is what happens when you try to pull a stunt for the sake of being a provocateur, as Scheer is trying to do, but you don’t have the votes to back it up. Oh, and then they tried to wedge this into the frame of it being a distraction from the tax proposals, when it shouldn’t need to be said that this was a distraction of the Conservatives’ own making, owing to their particular tactical ineptitude.

Meanwhile, Liberals took to tweeting about how this would have made Harder Andrew Scheer’s “spokesperson” on the committee, which is bizarre and wrong – the chair is the committee’s spokesperson. It’s baffling that they would try to spin it in this fashion. Then again, one shouldn’t be surpised given how badly this whole affair has been for people describing how things work in Parliament. And it shouldn’t surprise me, and yet here we are, that not one journalist writing about this story, nor any pundit commenting on it, remarked about the fact that it makes no sense to put your critic forward as committee chair. None. The chair’s role is to be neutral, to run the meeting, arbitrate rules disputes and to ensure that witnesses and questioners stay within their timelines. They’re not supposed to vote unless it’s to break a tie, which shouldn’t happen very often given the numbers at play. Why would you want your critic – your point person in holding the government and in particular that associated minister, to account – to be hobbled in this way on committee, is baffling. It’s utterly incomprehensible if you follow the basics of how parliament is supposed to work. And yet nobody saw fit to call Scheer out on this fact. These details matter.

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Roundup: Preferential tax treatment warranted?

The hits keep on coming when it comes to the rhetoric about the proposed small business tax changes. If you listened to doctors, you would think that the government was outlawing self-incorporation. They’re not. If you listen to the Conservatives, it’s a “massive tax hike” and “hugely complex changes” which also doesn’t quite scan – yes, there is some complexity in how they plan to enforce the changes, but that’s not the same thing.

People also keep insisting that these changes won’t allow them to use their incorporation for savings purposes (whether for a buffer or for a maternity leave), which again, is not the case as the new rules have been outlined.

https://twitter.com/lindsaytedds/status/900542218041044992

Of course, when these facts meet their rhetoric, we have been assaulted with yet more wailing and gnashing of teeth that these preferential tax treatments are a “reward” for the risks that these entrepreneurs take. Which again, doesn’t actually fly with the research. (See Kevin Milligan’s thread starting here, which I won’t reproduce in its entirety).

In fact, you can make a number of arguments about whether the government should be subsidising the risk of entrepreneurs. Also, the it should be restated that preferential tax rates are not the reward for becoming an entrepreneur – there are other rewards inherent in the role.

Instead, we come back to the government’s argument about tax fairness, and why those who choose to self-incorporate and have families to split/sprinkle their income with should be the only ones to enjoys such privileges. Nobody seems to be able to answer that question. Funnily enough. Instead, it’s more disingenuous rhetoric and outright falsehoods about what’s being proposed here, that benefits only the very wealthy few for whom this kind of tax “planning” makes sense.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne takes on the notion that small businesses should get preferential tax rates for risk-taking, while taking down the critics of his arguments, who similarly are building cases on false premises.

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Roundup: Tuition trade-offs

If you’ve paid any attention to the NDP leadership race, you’ll know that the classic issue of free tuition has been bandied about with wild abandon, but no more enthusiastically than by Niki Ashton as she tries to bring Bernie Sanders-like excitement to the topic. The problem? That she’s ignoring some of the realities of the promise, for which Alex Usher took her to task over the Twitter Machine over the long weekend.

What Usher demonstrates here is that while it’s all well and good to promise free tuition, it comes with trade-offs, which is the reality in the countries where it is offered, and which Ashton refuses to discuss in her statements. You can’t give free tuition to everyone while maintaining the same level of access and quality instruction or institutions writ-large. There are other non-monetary resources that are finite, which this facile “free tuition is the solution!” boosterism ignores, and should be discussed if this is to be a seriously discussed issue and not just a vapid slogan, borrowing from American discourse without acknowledging the differences in Canada as so many of the Bernie Bro slogan appropriation has been.

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Roundup: Lighting a fire under the minister

It’s been a year since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Jordan, which set upper limits for trial delays, and so The Canadian Press had a couple of good pieces on it today, both looking at the fallout in terms of what needs to change in the justice system, as well as looking at the numbers of cases that have applied or been granted a stay of proceedings owing to delays that have been deemed unreasonable. I will note that while justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says that the decision “lit a fire” under her, she’s been agonizingly slow in responding.

I write a lot for the Law Times, and I talk to a lot of players in the legal community, and there has been a sense of mystification as to what all of the delays are. The fact that it took her a year to start the process of reforming how judges are appointed was baffling, and that slowed down the process for making said appointments – especially as some of the committees advising on appointments still aren’t up and running, six months later. While more appointments are finally being made, it’s taken a long time and it’ll take even longer for those judges to be fully prepared and worked into the system.

There is the legislation that has been coming out in drips and drabs. For example, they made a big deal about a bill that would finally equalise the age of consent for gay sex, but then abandoned said bill to roll those provisions into a larger bill on doing away with “zombie laws” that have been struck down but remain on the books. How much time and energy was spent on that abandoned bill? We keep hearing about the big promised justice reforms promise – looking at the Criminal Code, sentencing, bail, the works, but we’re nearly two years in, and there’s still no sign of them. Yes, they’re big files, but this is nearly the halfway point in the mandate, and big, complicated files like that are going to take time to get through Parliament – especially in the more independent Senate where they will face pushback from law-and-order Conservatives who are looking to hold onto the “reforms” of the previous government.

And then there are the whispers about Wilson-Raybould’s office. There is a constant churn of staff, but not before great delays when it comes to actually filling positions, like the judicial affairs advisor – a pretty key role that took months and months to fill. And if these kinds of necessary staffing decisions are taking forever, what does that mean for the managerial skills of the minister? There are whispers in the legal community, and they’re not too flattering. So when Wilson-Raybould says that Jordan lit a fire under her, one shudders to think about the pace of progress had it not.

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Roundup: Backloading the spending with good reason

Yesterday was the big day, and the Defence Policy Review was released, which by all accounts was a fairly comprehensive look at what the vision of the Forces should be for the next twenty years, complete with an extra $62 billion in defence spending over those two decades, plus more cyber warfare and drones, more ships, and more fighters along the way. The hitch? That most of that spending won’t start rolling out until after the next election, which could be a problem. The other hitch? That the way these things works means that it couldn’t actually start rolling out until then anyway owing to the way that these things work, and yes, the Liberals meticulously costed their plans with five different accounting firms looking over the numbers and ensuring that both cash and accrual accounting methodologies were included. (One defence analyst did note that this funding means that existing commitments that were made but not funded are actually being accounted for and funded under this new model). These accounting considerations are worth noting, and economist Kevin Milligan explains:

Meanwhile, John Geddes casts a critical eye at the promises for future spending, while former Navy commander Ken Hansen offers his insider’s perspective on the document and its contents. Stephen Saideman takes a higher-level perspective including looking at whether the consultation process leading up to the report was followed (and it seems to be the case).

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Roundup: Holding BC’s horses

The fact that the BC NDP and the provincial Green party has come to a “confidence agreement” has everyone buzzing about what could possibly happen in that province, and whether it spells the end of the BC Liberals’ long reign, and the obligation on the province’s Lieutenant Governor. But because most people – including most of the journalists covering this story – don’t have a clue about government formation in our Westminster system, let me offer a few pointers.

The first point is right now, this agreement changes nothing. Clark is still the premier and has not resigned. The LG can’t simply dismiss her because there is a potentially viable alternate government with an added extra seat in the wings. It doesn’t work that way. All that this changes is that if Clark tests the confidence of the legislature and loses, the LG has an added option to consider when it comes to whether or not to grant dissolution and a new election. While yes, there is this agreement, the LG will also have to consider the stability of an alternate government and you’ll forgive me if I treat the promise of a four-year agreement on the Green supporting supply and confidence votes to be dubious at best.

Why? Because this is politics. First of all, the difference in seats is so slight that once the Speaker is taken into consideration, there may not be an appreciable difference in stability. MLAs will have to have perfect voting attendance lest the government fall on bad math or the inability to come to some kind of “gentleman’s agreement” on paired votes when MLAs are forced to be absent. And let’s face it – the Greens will only abide by this agreement so long as it suits them, and this being politics, the thirst for more influence comes quickly. How long before they decide they don’t like the other items on the NDP agenda? Before they have a personality clash with the NDP leader (which the Green leader made a big deal about during the election campaign, despite their big smiles during their press conference yesterday). How long before the NDP tires of Green demands? The agreement is a political promise, and is easily broken for the sake of politics. The LG likely knows this and would be advised to take the “four year” promise with a shaker full of salt.

It’s also notable that the two parties didn’t enter into a coalition agreement, which is part of what makes stability a real issue. The Greens were unlikely to want to be in a genuine coalition because of the issue of needing to adhere to cabinet solidary (and secrecy). They probably feel that they can throw their weight around more when they can public threaten to hold their breath until their “partners” accede to their demands, and this is significant for the sake of stability, despite the protestations that they want to make this work as a test case for proportional representation (even though PR generally necessitates actual coalitions).

And let’s not forget that Christy Clark is a formidable retail politician, and what’s going to matter is how she sells defeat or a request for dissolution. The narrative she builds will matter in the end, and we can’t underestimate that.

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Roundup: Further conversations on constitutional conventions

In response to my blog post yesterday on the our unwritten portions of our constitution being just as important as the written parts, I had a lot of response over the Twitter Machine, many trying to argue that parties were not an integral part of the system, but historian Christopher Moore took the time out to chastise me for the use of the term “constitutional conventions” when it comes to Responsible Government. But the problem is that Moore is actually wrong in what he tried to argue. To wit:

Smith should look at Section 54 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which sets out in plain language that only the cabinet can make and propose the raising and spending of money. That is what defines the role of the cabinet of ministers. It budgets; it plans the getting and spending.  But then there is Section 53, which bluntly states that only the House of Commons can give approval to the cabinet’s proposals for getting and spending.

A few problems with this. First of all, he’s citing the Constitution Act, 1867 and not 1982, and looking at Section 54, there is no mention of cabinet at all:

It shall not be lawful for the House of Commons to adopt or pass any Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill for the Appropriation of any Part of the Public Revenue, or of any Tax or Impost, to any Purpose that has not been first recommended to that House by Message of the Governor General in the Session in which such Vote, Resolution, Address, or Bill is proposed.

As is consistent in our constitution, there is no mention of a PM, or cabinet, because they are part of Responsible Government, which as I pointed out yesterday are part of the unwritten conventions that we inherited from the UK. As is consistent with the rest of the written constitution, only the Governor General is mentioned. And here’s the kicker: the unwritten constitutional convention is that under Responsible Government, the Crown – by way of the GG – acts on the advice of ministers, and for that to happen, ministers must hold the confidence of the Chamber. Ministers via the convention do all executive government in the Queen’s name. It’s not written because it’s a convention, per the preamble, as a constitution being similar in principle to that of the UK. Moore’s contention that it’s not a convention and that it’s embedded in the text does not hold. So while I’m happy to be corrected when I get it wrong (and it happens), this is not one of those times. Also, if you’re going to quote the constitution at me, then quote the constitution. And as for those people on the Twitter Machine insisting that Responsible Government can function without parties, well, it’s possible in a theoretical world with vampires and unicorns, but it will never happen in real life, so trying to disprove it to make a point is pretty much moot. The practice of parties developed for a reason. Maintaining confidence without them is a fool’s errand.

With many thanks to Philippe Lagassé for talking this issue through with me.

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Roundup: Constitutional conventions are constitutional

There was another example of the shocking level of civic illiteracy in our elected officials yesterday as Green Party leader Elizabeth May again trotted out the canard that political parties aren’t in the constitution. She was making a perfectly good point of privilege around the way that independent MPs and those from not officially recognised parties are being adversely affected by rules changes that are being carried forward from the last parliament, and that’s fine, but she’s shockingly wrong about the constitutional status of parties. Why? Because while political parties are not literally in the Constitution Acts of 1867 or 1982, they are part of the grounding framework of our system of Responsible Government, which is in and of itself a constitutional convention – part of our unwritten constitutional inheritance from the United Kingdom. It shouldn’t need reminding but apparently it does because apparently nobody learns civics any longer, but constitutional conventions are constitutional. In fact, they are just as enforceable as elements of the written constitution. And lo and behold, the preamble to the 1867 Act is:

Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom

This is exactly where our Responsible Government framework lies. The UK has an unwritten constitution, and its constitutional conventions have stood the test of time, and this is precisely why May and others who follow her logic are dead wrong. Parties are at the heart of Responsible Government because it’s how a government gains and maintains confidence. The system simply cannot hold with hundreds of “loose fish” all vying for attention and reward. (If you try to bring up the party-less territorial governments, smack yourself upside the head because you simply cannot scale up a consensus model from 19 members in NWT or 22 in Nunavut to 338 in Ottawa. It is a complete impossibility). Does that mean that we don’t currently have problems with the powers accumulated by party leaders? No, we absolutely do, but that’s also because we tinkered with the system of selecting those leaders, presidentializing them with massive membership votes rather than caucus selection that keeps them accountable in the Responsible Government tradition. But parties are absolutely essential to the functioning of our parliamentary system, and the fact the written portions of our constitution are silent on that fact is indicative of absolutely nothing. If one relies solely on the written portions and not the constitutional conventions, they are wholly ignorant of our system of government, and need to be called out as such.

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Roundup: Duffy’s long road back

We heard confirmation yesterday from Duffy’s lawyer that he does indeed plan to return to the Senate despite some serious health concerns, not that he’ll find many friends there, which could make things more awkward than they’ll already be. In talking with one senator yesterday, I heard largely that he had few friends there to begin with, and because he spent his time fundraising for the party instead of doing actual Senate work, he never really got to know or ingratiate himself with his actual Senate colleagues, so it’s not like he’ll have a long list of people looking to welcome him back with open arms. And, because it’s unlikely the party will welcome him back, Duffy may continue to find himself on the outside. His lawyer also suggested that perhaps he should be paid back for the time in which he was suspended without pay, but you will find that argument will quickly go down in flames as senators will remind you that their internal discipline process is separate from the criminal trial, and his suspension without pay was internal discipline. And we’ll get a bunch of pundits lazily declaring that the Senate is still lax in its rules and processes, which it isn’t (and I would argue really wasn’t when Duffy was taking advantage of it), and oh look – Scott Reid did just that. Kady O’Malley admits her surprise in the ruling, while Andrew Coyne takes umbrage with “not criminal” as a standard that seems to be emerging. The Winnipeg Free Press editorial board notes how the new, better appointments could help to restore the Senate’s credibility, while CBC looks at what effect the Duffy verdict could have with future prosecutions of other senators’ questionable conduct.

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