Roundup: The Meilleur problem

The feigned outrage over Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as the new Official Languages Commissioner, combined with the disingenuous concern over the search for a new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, is really starting to annoy me – particularly because of the way in which things are being spun, and the abject hypocrisy of it all. As for Meilleur’s surprise that this has become an Issue amidst a snake nest of partisans looking to stir things up and try and throw as much mud on the PM as they can, I have to say Oh, come on. You were in Queen’s Park. You know that they’ll play politics over this. Because seriously.

To start with, I will take note of Meilleur telling an interviewer that she had initially thought about applying to be a Senator to continue to contribute to public life now that she had resigned from Queen’s Park. While I continue to object to the self-identification process that this government has put into place (because why not try to get every narcissist in the country to hand in a CV?), the fact that she was told by the head of the selection committee that recent politicians were verboten in the “newly independent” Chamber is kind of infuriating. Why? Because the Senate is Parliament’s institutional memory. It’s a Good Thing to have some experienced political players in there, from both federal and provincial sides, so that they can be of use to Parliament as that institutional memory. That Trudeau seems keen to destroy that function of it is a problem.

As for Meilleur meeting with Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, I’m far less sold that this is somehow suspicious partisan work. They are contacts she had from their mutual time at Queen’s Park, and she was looking for ways to contribute, and hey, they’re people who would have some ideas. You realise that trying to make a Thing out of it is childish, right? Is the fact that she was once a provincial Liberal a problem for the job? Perhaps, if she didn’t have the qualifications for it. But by all accounts, she is more than qualified, which makes the partisan gamesmanship all the pettier. And to hear the party that appointed Vic Toews to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench rail on about how terrible this is, I have little patience for their arguments.

Meanwhile, as for the Conservatives’ demands that the process for the new Ethics Commissioner be turned over to a third party, I have a couple of things to say: one is that this is a democracy and not a technocracy, so stop trying to offload political decisions to outsiders; two is that you get to hold the government to account for the choices that are made; and three, demanding a retired judge make the selection, when the criteria specifies that the new Commissioner should be a former judge or head of a tribunal, you’re just creating a new conflict of interest because you’re asking said judge to appoint a former colleague. How is this any better? Seriously, do you people not stop to think for one second about your supposed attempts at being clever? Honest to gods, you people.

Continue reading

QP: Woe be Vegreville

With the PM away and Rona Ambrose already gone, the Conservatives surprisingly led with Shannon Stubbs, who railed about the plans to close the Vegreville immigration processing centre, in light of revelations of costs associated. Ralph Goodall took this one, noting the difficulty in filling current vacancies in the centre, and that the new centre in Edmonton would double its capacity. Stubbs angrily insisted that the government had lied about the costs, but Goodale insisted that the issue was capacity. Stubbs accused the government of punishing a small town with a Conservative MP in favour of moving it to a Liberal riding, but Goodale stood firm. Gérard Deltell got up next and railed about the government cutting tax credits, to which Scott Brison reminded him that their tax measures helped those who needed it the most. Deltell tried again, railing about the transit tax credit loss (seriously, it was bad policy no matter which way you slice it), and Brison listed the good economic news since the Liberals took power. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and in French, concerned trolled that Bardish Chagger wasn’t up to picking a new Ethics Commissioner. Chagger reminded him of the open and transparent process in place. Mulcair switched to English and wondered what the Liberals would think if Stephen Harper called on Paul Calandra to choose a new Commissioner, but Chagger repeated her answer. Mulcair then turned to the issue of the Official Languages Commissioner, and wondered in what role Gerald Butts communicated with Madeleine Meilleur before her appointment. Joly noted that candidates were vetted and interviewed after a rigorous process and that she spoke with other parties who agreed that she had credentials. Mulcair tried again in French, and got the same answer.

Continue reading

Roundup: The good and bad of new Senate rules

The Senate adopted a change to their rules this week, which changed the definition of a caucus so that it no longer depends on being affiliated with a party registered with Elections Canada, but can instead be any nine senators who want to affiliate themselves. The immediate upside of this is that it formalizes the break between the Conservative and Liberal duopoly that has dominated the Chamber for much of its history, and will grant actual formal status to the Independent Senators Group that the majority of the crossbench appointments have affiliated themselves with. Breaking the duopoly is good, because some of the past abuses in the Chamber were enabled by it – why come down hard on the rules when you’ll be the one to benefit from them next, when it’s “your turn” after all?

But where things go from here is where things get a bit more fraught. Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader – err, “representative,” is pleased as punch by this development because it creates more independence that moves in line with his vision of a chamber without partisan affiliation, where he can then recruit and co-opt senators to his caucuses at will. The notion that it gives senators the freedom to associate themselves in whatever configuration they choose – and usually people’s first idea is on regional lines – is fraught because it takes apart the Westminster model of government and opposition, which is fundamental to our system of government. The ability to have a coherent opposition is an important one, and if the Senate breaks up into interest groups, that makes coherent opposition more difficult, and generally makes it more difficult to hold a government to account – especially if those interest groups start agitating for their own particular special interests rather than having a big enough tent to encompass a multitude of views and regional dynamics within it, like we do now. If we let the Senate devolve into a collection of interest groups, what does that do about its ability to hold government to account, or to actually push back against bad legislation in a coherent manner when it counts to do so? While there is room to grow in the Chamber to permanently fit three or four different caucus groups, we should beware having too many factions. If some of those factions should choose to remain partisan, that shouldn’t be discouraged either – politics is partisan, and the Senate is a political body. That it is appointed, however, means that in most cases, the partisanship is more muted because they aren’t vying for re-election, which is as it should be. But while there are positive outcomes from this rule change, we should keep an eye on it so as to ensure that it doesn’t become abused, especially by those who would exploit the lack of coherent opposition for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells has a good read on the Senator Stephen Greene ouster, and how the two approaches to dealing with this new independent Senate – charm from Trudeau, discipline from the Conservatives – isn’t really working.

Continue reading

QP: Bell Island conspiracies

With Justin Trudeau on his way to the Microsoft conference in Washington State, and Rona Ambrose bowing out, there were only two leaders present for QP today. Candice Bergen led off, railing about the PM’s Xmas vacation — again — using the reach of a story about the island’s ownership to raise doubts. Bardish Chagger gave the usual reply. Bergen used this as a hook for a question to accuse Chagger of being the wrong person to be in charge of finding a new Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded her that the process is open and anyone can apply. Bergen insisted that the government was simply looking for Liberal donors, citing Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as Official Languages Commissioner. Diane Lebouthillier took this one, praising Meilleur’s record. Gérard Deltell was up next, worrying about the Infrastructure Bank and the search for a board despite the fact that it had not been created yet. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him of the value of the Bank, and that they wanted to gave board members ready to be appointed when the Bank’s creation was authorised by Parliament. On a second go from Deltell, François-Philippe Champagne took the opportunity to tout the Invest in Canada Agency that they were also looking for appointees for. Thomas Mulcair was up next, spinning a conspiracy about the tentacles of KPMG infiltrating everywhere, and Lebouthillier got up to note all of the measures they were taking to combat tax evasion. Mulcair asked again in French, and got the same answer. Mulcair then took a swipe at Meilleur’s appointment at Languages Commissioner, and Lebouthillier repeated her lines about Meilleur’s record. Mulcair demanded that Chagger recuse herself from the selection of the Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded him of the open process.

Continue reading

Roundup: Removing a senator over dinner

It started with a dinner invitation. The Prime Minister invited all of the senators who had thus-far sponsored government legislation to dinner to thank them for their contribution and to, presumably, talk about Senate modernization, and how it was taking shape. One of those senators was a sitting Conservative, Senator Stephen Greene, who had sponsored Bill S-4, on a tax agreement between Taiwan and Israel. The Conservative Senate leader, Senator Larry Smith, decided that if Greene was going to dine with the Prime Minister, that he was out of the caucus. Greene said fine – I’m going to be an Independent Reform Senator.

Part of Smith’s impetus for this move is because the Conservatives in the Senate are trying to preserve the Westminster role of opposition in the Upper Chamber, and that’s not a small thing. And there is a push, led by those like the Government Leader – err, “representative,” Peter Harder, to try and do away with the traditional roles of government and opposition, so that you have one big body of independents, which some of us have a problem with.

The other part of the context here is that Greene has been pushing for reforms in the Senate that would do away with partisan caucuses, and this would have been the final straw for Smith.

I will add that I do think that there is a problem with trying to eliminate the roles of government and opposition in the Senate, and I do think it’s problematic that the government is getting independent senators to sponsor legislation – particularly government legislation, and most especially budget bills. Those should be shepherded by ministers, which the Government Leader should be as opposed to this farcical “government representative” nonsense. Co-opting independents in this way has been problematic not only from a procedural and accountability framework (because ministers should be able to answer on behalf of cabinet when they sponsor such bills), but we have had several instances of independent senators sponsoring these bills with the intent to move amendments to them right away, which complicates their role in sponsoring and defending those bills. Part of this is the growing pains associated with the new reality of the Senate, but it’s also a reflection of this stubborn refusal by the PM to properly appoint a Government Leader who is the point of accountability in the Senate under our system of Responsible Government. Harder is not that, and it is a problem, and what happened to Greene is a fracture point in this bigger issue.

Continue reading

QP: Rona Ambrose’s swan song

With the news that Rona Ambrose was stepping down now confirmed, and Justin Trudeau present for what was likely the only day this week, QP was off and running. Ambrose led off, asking about the report calling to scrap and replace the National Energy Board. Trudeau noted that they have been consulting, and reiterated that they are serious about ensuring that the economy and the environment go together. Ambrose took exception to the report recommendation that its headquarters be moved to Ottawa from Calgary, and Trudeau took a few shots at the previous government politicising the Board while he was working to restore trust in the process. Ambrose worried that Trudeau was trying to choke out the oilsands in red tape, but Trudeau insisted that a responsible approach would mean growing the economy. Ambrose switched to French to demand that the House appoint a new Ethics Commissioner without any Liberal interference. Trudeau jabbed back about political appointments the Conservatives made while touting his own merit-based process. Ambrose noted that the last question would likely be her final one as leader of the opposition, and said she would call off her attack dogs if he answered how many times he met with the Ethics Commissioner. Trudeau reminded her that she asks them not to talk about investigations and he has met with her several times over his time as an MP, and was going to pay Ambrose a compliment before he was drowned out. Thomas Mulcair was up next, raising the reach of a CBC news story about the ownership of the Aga Khan’s island. Trudeau retreated to the talking point that it was a private family vacation. Mulcair railed about the helicopter ride, but Trudeau noted that he would answer any questions the Ethics Commissioner may have. Mulcair then moved onto the story about someone from KPMG working for the Liberal Party, in the context of a committee study of the firm being voted down, and Trudeau noted that the committee is independent. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau launched into a spiel about ethics and openness.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

QP: Refusing an answer

On a busy caucus day, with most of the benches full, it was a question as to how much cheap outrage would be wrought in QP. Rona Ambrose led off, railing about the Infrastructure Bank, to which Justin Trudeau insisted that people were eager for infrastructure investment. Ambrose moved onto Bombardier and the loan given to them despite the misgivings about their governance. Trudeau noted that they gave a repayable loan I order to guarantee good paying jobs. Ambrose changed topics again, denouncing government plans to gut a private member’s bill on bail reform (which, I will note, the legal community is against), and Trudeau insisted that he felt for ten widow of the constable the bill was named after, which was why he was pleased the committee took the study of the bill seriously. Ambrose was outraged, but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose gave it an angry third try, but didn’t get a different response. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worrying about media reports that a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister was going to be named as the new Official Languages Commissioner. Trudeau noted that there was an independent process, but didn’t confirm or deny the story, only that there would be an announcement in the coming days and weeks. Mulcair tried again, got the same answer, and then moved onto the job postings for the Infrastructure Bank, which has not yet been created. Trudeau simply talked about the need for new infrastructure, but didn’t address the concerns. Mulcair railed about the problem, and Trudeau noted the broad consultations that they undertook with the design of the Bank.

Continue reading

QP: In the shadow of Ste-Foy

With a somber mood in the Commons in advance of QP, shortly after statements made Trudeau and the other party leaders regarding the shooting in the Quebec City mosque. Rona Ambrose led off, raising the mosque shooting and offering condolences. Trudeau thanked her for her question and leadership, and offered assurances that they were working to address the situation. Ambrose then asked about the timeline on the Yazidi refugees and how the US travel ban might affect them. Trudeau said that the new minister was working hard on the file and they were working hard to meet the deadline with an announcement coming in a few weeks. Ambrose raised the worries about jobs going south with lower taxes and slashed regulations, but Trudeau immediately raised their focus on the middle class. Ambrose then moved to the helicopter ride to the Aga Khan’s island and breaking ethical rules. Trudeau responded simply that they were working with the Ethics Commissioner to resolve the situation. Ambrose then accused Trudeau of worrying about his own affairs instead of Canadians’. Trudeau noted the town halls he held across the country, and that they remained focused on the middle class. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and he too raised the Quebec City mosque shooting, and wondered how those religious institutions would be kept safe. Trudeau assured him that police forces were monitoring the situation, but the best way to protect Canadians was with a united society. Mulcair noted that the mosque had been targeted in the past, and wanted greater dialogue with concerned religious leaders across the country. Trudeau noted how all MPs were engaged with faith leaders in their community, and that they were working to reduce ignorance around the country. Mulcair raised the American “Muslim ban” executive order, and wanted Trudeau to condemn it as an affront to Canadian shared values. Trudeau said that Canadians were an open society and he would stand up for those values. Mulcair wanted permanent support to refuges who are now banned from the United States, and Trudeau said that they are working to see how they can help out more.

Continue reading

Roundup: Gallagher and the electoral reform garbage fire

Yesterday’s release of the electoral reform committee report was a giant headache for all sorts of reasons – the way in which the majority report was cute in their recommendations, the Gallagher Index nonsense, Monsef’s being cute in reply to the ways in which both the Conservatives and NDP were over-reading their own report, and the repeated demands that the Prime Minister respect his ill-considered promise that 2015 would be the last election under First-Past-the-Post. It was an utterly exasperating day.

While are all aware that I am team status quo because the system is not broken and any problems are not the result of the electoral system, I will offer a few observations. Number one is that the Gallagher Index is one of those devices favoured by poli sci undergrads, electoral reform nerds, and sore losers to “prove” that their preferred system is “mathematically” better than others, but it’s predicated on a couple of false notions – that in evaluating the current system that it’s a single event when it’s actually 338 separate events; and that the translation of votes to seats in this as-close-to-perfect proportion is actually desirable when it is in fact distorting the meaning of the vote itself. When we vote under our system, we are making a simple decision on who fills an individual seat, and because there are more than two candidates (and we don’t use run-off elections), it tends to rely on a plurality result rather than a simple majority. When you start demanding proportionality, you distort the meaning of that simple decision, and yes, that is actually a problem. That the report wanted a system with an Index of 5 or less, that’s not actually a simple choice of one or two systems. (If you want an explanation of the math, read this thread). Simulations of the Index under the Canadian system can itself be distortionary because of the regional nature of our elections, which why some use a “composite” Index that can produce different results from a strictly national Index figure when you try to correct for those.

The NDP/Green “supplemental report,” aside from being nigh-unreadable for all of its collection of demonstrably false talking points, recommends either an MMP system or this “Rural-Urban Proportional,” but in order to get their Index scores below 5, it means a large number of new seats particularly for MMP, while the RUP concept in and of itself is unlikely to be considered constitutional – using two separate electoral systems depending on your geography is unlikely to pass the Supreme Court of Canada smell test, but this is a decision they wanted to put on the government without that particular context. It’s all well and good to wave your hands and say you want a more proportional system, but designing one that works for Canada’s particular geography and constitutional framework is not as easy as it sounds, nor does it actually respect what you’re actually voting for. And so long as the loudest voices on this file are mired in sore loserism who figure that it’s the system that’s keeping them down and not the fact that they simply don’t have policies and candidates that can appeal more broadly, we’re going to continue to be mired in debates based on a load of utter nonsense. But hey, the government needs to make it look like they’re going to keep trying to tackle this file for another few months before they give up rather than just smothering this Rosemary’s Baby in its crib right now like they should, and just take their lumps for a foolhardy promise.

And if you won’t take my word for any of this, here’s Kady O’Malley evaluating the report, what happened today, and the trap that the NDP and Greens may be setting for themselves. Meanwhile, The Canadian Press’ Baloney Meter™ asserts that Trudeau’s election promise was “full of baloney,” while it can credibly be pointed to the fact that they acknowledged the need for consultations which gave wiggle room.

Continue reading