QP: Defence policy concerns

While Monday attendance is usual for the PM, he was nowhere to be seen today, instead meeting with Muslim leaders from around the country. Rona Ambrose led off, worried that the Trump administration would be able to see Canada’s defence policy before Canadians would. Harjit Sajjan said that because the policy was determined in consultation with allies, it made sense for them to see it first. Ambrose accused the PM of meeting with Americans in secret over it, and Sajjan reiterated that it was done with broad consultation and be fully costed. Ambrose turned to Wynn’s law, complaining that the government gutted it (despite the fact that the legal community was not in favour of the bill). Jody Wilson-Raybould said that they felt for Wynn’s widow and supported the principles of bail reform, but the bill didn’t pass muster. Ambrose accused her of looking out for the interests of lawyers instead of victims (as though it’s not lawyers navigating the new problems the bill would create), but Wilson-Raybould reiterated her response. Ambrose’s final question was to demand support for her bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges. Wilson-Raybould was non-committal in her response, just talking about the importance of the issue. (Note that after QP, the government voted to ram the bill through without further debate). Matthew Dubé led for the NDP, worried about the possibility of tolls and service fees for projects funded out of the Infrastructure Bank. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him that they could leverage investment while freeing up government dollars for things like shelters and housing. Rachel Blaney railed about the risks associated with the investments, and Sohi noted pensions funds that invest in infrastructure in other countries, while they were trying to get those dollars to stay in Canada. Blaney then demanded guarantees for fair treatment at the US border (as if that will work for the Americans), and Ralph Goodale said that any incidents should be reported so that they had a statistical record but so far the figures were on the decline. Dubé reiterated in French, and Goodale told him to follow up on individual cases with his office.

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Roundup: Modernization beyond cameras

The Senate’s modernization committee came out with their first report yesterday that had 21 recommendations, almost all of which were fairly common-sense, but wouldn’t you know it, the only one that most media outlets glommed onto was the one about broadcasting Senate proceedings, never mind that it was pretty much always the plan to do so once they moved to the new chamber in 2018 (as it was too expensive in the current one given the maxed out infrastructure). Other recommendations that caught the mainstream attention were developing a mechanism to split up omnibus bills, giving a more proportional role for non-aligned senators on committees and coming up with a modified way of selecting the Senate Speaker (in a rubric that doesn’t require constitutional amendment) were also up there, while Kady also clocked the recommendation on ensuring that they recognise any group over nine senators that wants to organise themselves as a caucus or parliamentary group that can choose its own leader, and that those groups can have access to sufficient research dollars.

Less publicised were the number one recommendation of a mission statement for the Chamber to guide its activities in the Westminster tradition, finding ways to reorganise its Order Paper and Senate Question Period to not only formalise inviting ministers but also Officers of Parliament (but I’m less keen on reducing it to two days per week to give the “Government Representative” a break – if he wants the salary, he should keep up with the workload). The Independent Working Group says they’re mostly happy with these changes, but want more assurances of representation on key committees like Senate Rules and Internal Economy, where they need to have the actual power to break up the duopoly that currently exists between the established parties, which is fair.

What the report does not say is that parties should be eliminated, and in fact goes out to specifically say that the institution functions within the Westminster model, which includes government and opposition roles, and nothing in that report is intended to assume or advocate for the elimination of those roles, and that’s important. Opposition is important for the practice of accountability, and that’s something the Senate is very good at providing. There will be more reports and recommendations to come, and I’ll have more to say in the coming days, but I’m heartened to see that there is a commitment to preserving these key features, rather than to blow them up in the continued kneejerk allergy to partisanship that currently grips the imagination of would-be Senate reformers.

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QP: Carbon tax woes

While Rona Ambrose was still away, we had both the PM and NDP “interim” leader Thomas Mulcair present for the day. Denis Lebel led off, decrying federal interference with the provinces with the imposition of their carbon tax. Trudeau insisted that they were working with the provinces to move ahead with tackling emissions. Lebel switched to English to ask again, and got much the same answer, with Trudeau making a few more digs about the previous government not being willing to work with provinces. Lebel went another round in French before Ed Fast took over to ask the same question yet again in English, concern trolling about the three provincial environment ministers who walked out of the meeting with federal ministers. Trudeau largely repeated his points about working with the provinces to create a strong economy and a clean environment. Fast read out condemnation from those ministers, and Trudeau ensured him that their plan would create jobs. Thomas Mulcair was up next, decrying the endorsement of “Stephen Harper’s targets,” and lamented the too-low carbon price. Trudeau replied with his established points about showing leadership in creating jobs and protecting the environment. Mulcair asked again in French, got the same answer, and then moved onto concerns about the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in the wake of the Environment Commissioner’s report, to which Trudeau said they would follow up on the recommendations. For his final question, Mulcair demanded that the government agree to the NDP motion on a committee on arms sales, but Trudeau did not agree, and pointed to their adopting the small arms treaty.

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Roundup: Beware blinkered history

There is always a danger in trying to look for lessons from history when you do so selectively. This is the case with a column by William Watson in today’s Ottawa Citizen. Watson – an economics professor at McGill and not a parliamentary observer, it should be noted – dug through the 1917 Hansard to look over the debates on bringing in income tax (remember, this was the “temporary” wartime measure that was introduced and then eventually became a permanent thing), and discovered that lo, the debate was so much more serious then and nothing like things are today, ergo Parliament was better in 1917 than it is today.

And then I bashed my head against my desk for a while.

This is what happens when you take a look at a narrow slice of history without actually looking at the broader context or picture. It’s easy to take a single debate and declare a golden age because hey, the government of the day was giving complex answers to complex questions, but that’s not to say that there weren’t antics that took place. Remember that this was not far removed from the days when MPs would light firecrackers and play musical instruments to disrupt the other side during debate. Hell, I was speaking to a reporter who was in the Gallery during WWII, and she said that there was far less professionalism in those days, and MPs who got bored would often break into song during debate. This was also the era before TV, before the proceedings were recorded in audio or video and able to be checked, so we don’t know what the transcriptionists missed. It was also an era where I’m sure that time limits for questions and answers were looser than they are now, and where MPs weren’t playing up for the cameras. Does that make it better? Maybe, maybe not. Parliament was also composed entirely of white men, mostly of a professional background – does that make things any better? You tell me. Parliament had very different responsibilities in those days as well, and government was much, much smaller. Patronage ruled the day, and government was more involved in direct hires of the civil service rather than it being arm’s length. Is this something we want to go back to? Watson kind of shrugs this important distinction off because they had more meaningful exchanges about income tax.

Declaring simply that Parliament was composed of “intelligent, informed adults” in 1917, and the implication that it is not so today, is a grossly blinkered view of history and of civics. I will be the first to tell you that the state of debate today is pretty abysmal when it mostly consists of people reading statements into the record, talking past one another, but that doesn’t mean that MPs aren’t intelligent or informed. Frankly, it seems like Watson is longing for the days of the old boys’ club if you read some of his nostalgic commentary. I’m not sure that’s proof that things were better then, and it certainly should be a caution about taking a blinkered view of history.

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Roundup: Slowly effacing the Crown

There has been a certain level of trepidation amongst monarchists when the Liberals came to power, given their penchant for rewriting Canadian monarchical symbols out of things in order to focus on the maple leaf. When Trudeau announced that there would be no changes to our relationship with the Crown, there was a bit of a sigh of relief, particularly when he said that he would not be de-royalizing the service names of the Canadian Forces, but they are slowly and subtly reversing some of the Conservative restorations of monarchical symbols, starting with generals’ rank pins. They had gone from maple leaves, reverting to the older crowns given that hey, this country is a constitutional monarchy and the head of the Canadian Forces is the Queen of Canada. But now they’re turning back into maple leaves. The official excuse is that it’s easier for our international allies to recognise, but I am suspicious that this isn’t in fact a reversion to traditional Liberal effacing of monarchical symbols. What especially makes me insane about this is that it reinforces the narrative that the Conservatives as the party of the monarchy, inherently politicizing the Crown which should never, ever happen, and which is really, really irresponsible for the Liberals and NDP to engage in. Like, completely and utterly boneheadedly irresponsible. The Crown is our central organising principle. It is the centre of our constitutional framework. I cannot emphasise enough that letting one party drape themselves in the glow of the Crown unchallenged is beyond negligent. Worse, they not only let it go unchallenged by buy into this completely wrong narrative that they’re reverting to Britishisms when the Canadian monarchy is separate and distinct (well, more or less, but there is not grey area thanks to the Conservatives’ completely boneheaded royal succession bill). Rather than defending the Crown of Canada, you now have parties that are playing stupid political games around it, and doing lasting damage to Canadians’ understanding around our very constitutional framework. So slow claps all around, because this is the height of ignorant wrongheadedness. Everyone needs to be spanked for this petty and irresponsible nonsense.

Update:

I may have been hasty about the pips, as there may be good reason to change them. The rest of my points, about allowing the Crown to be politicized (especially since it allows more clueless journalists to put this frame around it), and my own trepidation about the Liberal penchant for effacing Crown symbols, remains.

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Roundup: The modernization agenda

Conservative Senator Thomas McInnis, chair of the new modernisation committee, took to the op-ed pages of the Chronicle Herald to talk about just that – their process of modernising the Upper Chamber by non-constitutional means. While much of the op-ed is pretty standard stuff, he did say a couple of things that intrigued me, so I’ll make brief mention of them. First is that as they contemplate changes and incorporating the increasing number of independent senators, that they need to recognise that since the Senate is not a confidence chamber, it doesn’t need to organise itself on party lines in the same way that the Commons does. This is an important point, because as much as it is an important concept to have a government and opposition side in our Westminster system of government, the role of the Senate means that it doesn’t need to hew as closely to that model. Now, I do still think that the Government Leader in the Senate should have remained a cabinet minister for the sake of there being someone who can answer for the government in the chamber, as well as to properly shepherd government legislation through the Chamber (the minister-in-all-but-name model that Harper used for Claude Carignan was very much a poor idea that limited the exercise of Responsible Government), the fact that the Senate is not a confidence chamber does blunt my criticisms to an extent. McInnis also dropped hints about one of the modernisation committee’s goals being to strengthen the role of being an “effective” representative for regions and provinces. This is interesting because I do wonder if it means that there will be a push to form regional caucuses within the Senate, as is occasionally brought up. I’m not sure how it would really work – essentially having four or five party-like structures (Ontairo, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the West each being 24-seat regional divisions, plus the additional six seats for Newfoundland and Labrador and one each for the territories could either fold into one of the other regional caucuses or forming a caucus of their own), and how they would then translate that into the committee memberships and so on, but it is an idea that has been mentioned before, so we’ll see what kind of appetite there is for it, or if the new Independent Working Group will hold more sway in terms of keeping the current structure but giving more power to independent senators for committee memberships and the like. With there being no opposition MPs from the whole of the Atlantic provinces, this is where the Senate’s regional role becomes more important – and they have been flexing those muscles when ministers have appeared before them in the new Question Period format – but it remains to be seen how this will translate into workable reforms. Suffice to say, these are conversations that are being had, and we’ll see what the committee reports back in the weeks ahead.

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Roundup: Concern for the North, but not too much

Day two of the big Northern Tour, and Stephen Harper announced $2 million to help set up a Northern Farm Training Institute campus, along with 300 acres of farmland and greenhouses, to help make produce more readily available in the North. That done, he gave dire warnings about the Russian presence in the Arctic and his concerns about the militarization of the North. With this in mind, the Canadian Forces are looking to set up a network of supply hubs in the Arctic in order to make it easier to stockpile equipment and deploy in the case of an emergency, and hopefully reduce the cost of operating in the North. Mind you, the plans for an expanded deepwater port and an air base have both been dramatically scaled back for cost, so we’ll see how much of this plan actually comes to fruition. Elsewhere on the tour, it has been noted – somewhat pointedly – that Harper is just passing through some of these Northern locations and is not actually sitting down to consult with the local government or people to know what they need. Try to look surprised. Michael Den Tandt notes that Harper is looking more energised on this trip than he has in probably a year-and-a-half, what with all kinds of other unpleasant things that he’s had to deal with.

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