Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: Looking to punish a maverick

One Liberal MP broke ranks from and voted for the Conservatives’ Supply Day motion on extending the consultation period on the tax changes, and the media has spent the day salivating over it, and as has become usual, is playing the role of party whip better than the party whip himself. Because drama!

Said MP, Wayne Long, conspicuously made himself absent from national caucus yesterday morning, and made himself available to media, so it’s clear that he’s being a maverick and pushing his luck rather than keeping his head down and falling into line, but at the same time, I wonder if the fact that the media makes a Big Deal of these kinds of incidents just amplifies what he did (which shouldn’t be a big deal given that it wasn’t a confidence vote), but was simply a rather performative protest motion by the Conservatives as part of their campaign to sow confusion into the tax discussion. But my concern is that when the media goes out of their way to make a Big Deal out of this issue, chasing the whip across the Foyer to his office trying to get him to give a juicy comment about the whole thing, I fear that it sets up these public expectations that MPs who don’t always toe the party line should be ousted. We saw this in Manitoba over Steven Fletcher’s vote against his party on an issue that wasn’t one of confidence, but it was the media who kept reiterating the message that he should be thrown out of caucus, until the caucus did just that. It’s so very damaging to what we want out of our democracy, and for all that the pundit class protests that we want MPs to exercise more independence, We The Media are always the first to pounce when they don’t.

On a similar note, Kady O’Malley thinks we should stop calling it “embarrassing climb downs” when governments listen to criticism and make amendments to their bills and proposals. And like the salivating that happens when MPs break ranks, this too is always the narrative that crops up when governments respond to complaints and move to make changes to improve what’s on offer. It’s how democracy should work, and yet We The Media keeps reinforcing this message that listening and adapting is a bad thing. I have to wonder if we’re really our own worst enemies sometimes.

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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: No, you don’t need a protected nomination

Apparently at the Liberal caucus retreat last week, the subject of the nomination process for the next election came up, and of course, MPs have plenty to say. Not that they’re telling the media, and while this Hill Times piece ended up being pretty thin gruel, mostly retreading their story on the push for protected nominations from early in the summer, I will use it as a chance to re-up my previous piece in Maclean’s about why protected nominations are a very bad thing in our system of government.

I’m sure all MPs like to think that they have very busy and important work to do in Ottawa (and they do!) and that means that they really can’t spare the time and attention that an open nomination would mean, but open nominations are not only a way to engage with the grassroots at the riding level, they’re also an important way of holding the incumbents to account within the party ranks, rather than simply at the ballot box. This means that there are multiple levels of accountability, which is a good thing for democracy. And I get that they need to be careful to delineate their work as MP and as the local party candidate, and that there are an increasing number of rules to enforce the separation between the two, but if they’re doing a good job, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain a healthy membership base that will support them. In fact, I would be concerned if my local MP couldn’t maintain a healthy membership base in the riding association because that means that those grassroots members are not being engaged and that is a very big problem for democracy. In other words, don’t ignore your grassroots, and if you are as an MP, then that means you’re not doing your job.

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Roundup: Those “sexist” tax changes

Pushback on the proposed income tax changes increased in intensity, with the Canadian Medical Association launching broadsides at the policy under the rubric that it’s “sexist” and will drive doctors out of the country, while Conservatives have taken these arguments to social media, Lisa Raitt policing news aggregators and Kellie Leitch penning fundraising letters. Jane Philpott, addressing a CMA conference, assured them that they were operating under misinformation and that the goal of the changes was tax fairness – that those with spouses earning significantly less money or having adult children shouldn’t unfairly benefit from the existing system than those who don’t.

I did try to get some answers as to how this policy was “sexist,” because I’m not entirely convinced that these changes prevent people from using money in the corporation to finance parental leaves, never mind the fact that the previous government made a Very Big Deal about changing the EI system to allow self-employed people to contribute in order to finance maternity leaves – something that received very little uptake. And most of the stories that Raitt pointed to were anecdotal that didn’t point to where these policy changes were a problem – one example was a Facebook post where a dentist insisted that these current policies were what allowed her to keep up with male counterparts, which is an argument that makes no sense at all. They don’t prevent incorporation. They don’t prevent deductions of expenses or reinvestment in the business – it’s about not letting people use income sprinkling or splitting for the sole purposes of reducing their taxes. Not that it’s stopped the narratives that this hurts doctors or struggling small businesses.

And this is a salient point – in Ontario, the provincial government encouraged this kind of incorporation rather than increase what they’re paying doctors, so you can see why they’re upset that these tools are being taken away from them. Nevertheless, it also largely proves that their arguments are fairly disingenuous, especially when they insist that “it’s not about the money.” But with none of their other arguments actually panning out, it seems to be that’s exactly what it is, and it’s fine if they come out and just say it. But to put on this song and dance about how the changes are “sexist” and that it somehow disproves Trudeau’s feminism, and ignoring the stated purpose of the changes with regards to tax fairness, makes the excuses start to ring fairly hollow.

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Roundup: Divisions of Power at the Council

With the Council of the Federation meeting today in Edmonton, they had a pre-meeting yesterday with some Indigenous leaders – others having opted not to join because they objected to it being “segregated” from broader Council meeting. While I can certainly see their point that they want to be full partners at the table, I have to wonder if this isn’t problematic considering some of the issues that the Council has to deal with – NAFTA renegotiations, inter-provincial trade, marijuana regulations – things that don’t really concern First Nations but that premiers need to hammer out. Two groups did meet – the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (which generally deals with off-reserve and urban Indigenous Canadians) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, citing successful talks, while the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council stayed out of it.

While I’m sympathetic to these Indigenous groups’ desire to have full-fledged meetings with premiers, I’m not sure that the Council is the best place to do it, because they’re not an order of government so much as they’re sovereign organisations that have treaty relationships. While some of their concerns overlap, they don’t have the same constitutional division of powers as the provinces, so a meeting to work on those areas of governance can quickly be sidelined when meetings stay on the topics where areas do overlap with Indigenous groups, like health or child welfare, while issues like interprovincial trade or harmonizing regulations would get left at the sidelines as they’re not areas in which Indigenous governments have any particular constitutional stake. And yes, we need more formalized meetings between Indigenous leaders and premiers, I’m not sure that simply adding them to the Council achieves that, whereas having separate meetings – as was supposed to happen yesterday – would seem to be the ideal forum where they can focus on issues that concern them. Of course, I could be entirely wrong on this and missing something important, but right now, I’m struggling to see how the division of powers aligns in a meaningful way.

Oh, and BC won’t be at the Council table as NDP leader John Horgan is being sworn in as premier today, even though he could have scheduled that date earlier so that he could attend (seeing as this meeting has been planned for months).

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Roundup: Caretakers and emergencies

The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.

This is why, after Clark’s visit to the lieutenant governor, the statement from the LG was that she “will accept her resignation,” not that Clark has resigned on the spot.

Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.

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Roundup: Rural nomination angst

In yesterday’s Hill Times, a few would-be Liberal candidates in rural ridings are talking about how they want nominations to start sooner than later, citing the challenges of rural life when it comes to door-knocking – owing to the difficulties of travel in the winter, the best time for them to meet constituents is in the summer and autumn. Hence, they want the nomination process to be over before summer 2018, so that they have a long lead-time to do the campaigning in large rural ridings – something that is less of an issue in urban ridings.

As far as suggestions go, it’s not a terrible one. I think that parties should have a fairly long lead-up with a nominated candidate, particularly in unheld ridings, so that they can do the work of grassroots engagement and get people involved in the process. This also being said, in a riding that has an incumbent, you also don’t want to run the nomination too early because an open nomination is also a way to hold that incumbent to account by their grassroots members, so if you hold the nomination too early, you don’t get as much of their tenure to judge them by. I know that some Liberals are agitating to have their nominations protected, while Conservatives have a threshold system in place to protect their nominations (which I am less keen on because it can short-circuit accountability), but I also know that the Liberals haven’t made up their minds how they’re dealing with nominations for 2019, which boggles the mind. Of course, this is part of the fallout of their wholesale party constitution rewrite (which, I will remind you, centralised even more power in the leader’s office at the expense of the grassroots), so we’ll see how they decide to deal with this, and how much lip-service they pay to the grassroots while still keeping their newly acquired centralized power. Suffice to say, nominations remain the most important part of our democratic process, so watching a party flail about it is never a good thing.

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Roundup: Trying to measure independence

As Senators have made their way back home for the summer, we’re having another round of them poking each other, like kids in the backseat of the car on a long trip, over just who are the “real independents” in the Senate. It’s getting a bit tiresome, especially with the Conservatives insisting that they’re the only ones because they vote against the government more often. The problem is that it’s a fairly flawed metric because they’re the Official Opposition and are supposed to vote against the government on a consistent basis. That doesn’t make them independent – it makes them the opposition.

The big problem with the metric about voting as a measure of independence ignores the broader procedural issues. If the government could really command the votes of its new independent appointees, then bills would be making it through the Senate a lot faster, and they’re not. The logistics of getting legislation through the chamber when you don’t have a whip who is organizing votes is one of the measures by which you can tell that these senators are more independent than the Conservatives in the Senate give them credit for. While the Conservatives, Senate Liberals and Independent Senators Group are getting better at organizing themselves in trying to come up with plans around who will be debating what bills when, the fact that the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, refuses to negotiate with those groups to prioritize some bills over others, has been part of the reason why some bills went off the rails and took forever to pass. If he did negotiate, or could command votes to ensure that bills could be pushed through when needed, I would buy the argument that these senators aren’t really independent. The fact that there is this lack of coherence in moving legislation is one of the markers in the column of greater independence. This is also where the argument about the need for an Official Opposition kicks in.

While the dichotomy of strict Government/Opposition in the Senate has been upended with the new group of Independents, ending the duopoly of power dynamics that contributed to some of the institutional malaise around the rules, I will maintain that an Official Opposition remains important because it’s important to have some focus and coherence when it comes to holding the government to account. Simply relying on loose fish to offer piecemeal opinion on individual pieces of legislation or issues risks diluting the effectiveness of opposition, and it also means that there is less ideological scrutiny of a government’s agenda, which is also important. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing, and the Senate has traditionally been a less partisan place because there was no need for electioneering within its ranks. Trying to make it non-partisan will not make it better, but will make it less effective at what it does.

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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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