Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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Roundup: No maple death squads

A story that caught my eye yesterday was on the topic of foreign fighters who may return now that ISIS/Daesh has fallen. More particularly was the notion that the US, UK and France have all made it policy to try and target and kill their own home-grown fighters rather than risk them returning to their own countries. Canada, however, came out explicitly yesterday to state that we aren’t doing the same because we don’t engage in death squads. And yes, we’re taking the issue seriously, and our security forces are on alert, and so on. While it may be astonishing to hear, it’s also not unsurprising considering that this is a government that is committed to the Charter, and extrajudicial killings would seem to be a gross violation thereof.

The problem? Some of the responses.

While I have a great deal of respect for the good senator, I’m a bit troubled by the sentiments expressed because the implicit message is that governments should feel free to violate the Charter with impunity, with either extrajudicial killings, or processes that violate the Charter and our other international obligations against torture, as with the reference to Omar Khadr. And worse, the kinds of responses to that tweet are pretty disturbing in their own right.

Aside from the fact that any of these targeted killings would be outside of the rule of law, Stephanie Carvin also points out that this kind of policy would be a false certainty, particularly when it comes to verification. I would also add that it would seem to me that it keeps the focus elsewhere than on home soil, where radicalisation still happens to one extent or another, and I do think there is likely a sense that “Hey, we’ve killed them over there,” then we don’t think about how they were radicalised at home in the first place, and we don’t put in the time and resources toward solving that issue. Nevertheless, that our government follows the rule of law shouldn’t be a news story, but in this day and age, it would seem to be.

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Roundup: A modest peacekeeping package

At long last, Justin Trudeau delivered what the government had long-promised when it came to how Canada was going to fulfil its pledge around peacekeepers for the UN. Err, well, sort of. You see, while Trudeau said that the 600 troops would all roll out eventually, for the time being, we’re doing more of the work of capacity building, training, and getting more women involved, plus a new rapid-response air deployment of heavy-lift capability and weaponized helicopters that will include some 200 personnel. And no, we’re not sending troops to Mali. More significantly, perhaps, was the initiative on ending the use of child soldiers, which helps to fulfil some of the long-time work of retired general and Senator Roméo Dallaire.

At this point, the peanut gallery erupted into how the government’s mandate tracker would rate this promise as not having really been kept, but I have to wonder if that’s being unfair given the situation. We’ve heard for two years, since the initial pledge was made, that traditional peacekeeping was dead, and we needed to do something else, and lo, the government listened, consulted, and came up with a package of items – and funds – that will help with the real work of building capacity where it doesn’t exist currently. And listening to Dallaire on Power & Politics, he made the notion that it’s not really about committing another battalion of troops, because they have those – it’s about ensuring that they have the capacity to deal with the situation on the ground, and if Canada can help with that, is that not the better use of our time, money, resources, and personnel? Or do we demand 600 troops + 150 police in x-country that is just the right level of dangerous in order to check off a box and say “promise kept”? I’m not sure. We’ll see how the international community reacts, but so far the word out of the UN has been fairly positive (though it sounds like France may be a bit ticked that we’re not going to Mali). But maybe I’m wrong and we should have just sent them to Mali. I do think that we need to be a bit more nuanced in our understanding, and as with many things, people underestimate the need for capacity building at home and abroad, and it does seem to be something that this government is trying to address in one form or another. (For another take, here’s Stephen Saideman and his lukewarm feelings toward the announcement).

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Roundup: Paradise Papers problems

Big explosive revelations yesterday as the Paradise Papers were released – a major document dump on more offshore tax havens and those who use it. Canadian connections include the head of fundraising for the Liberal Party, Stephen Bronfman, whose family trust holds assets there, the family of a former senator, while three former prime ministers – Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have tangential connections to accounts there, as does the Queen. And while headlines may describe Bronfman as a “close advisor,” the party is disputing that label.

The bigger concern seems to be that Bronfman’s long-time law firm lobbied successive governments against going after more offshore tax havens. (Funnily enough, it was the Conservatives who cut funding for CRA to do this kind of investigative work, while the Liberals reinvested in it). The question for the CRA in all of these revelations is whether these funds were managed in Canada – which would break the rules – or whether they were managed from their offshore locations. CRA, incidentally, says it won’t hesitate to investigate these new revelations, which is consistent with the messages we’ve been hearing from them since they got more money for this kind of work.

As for the Queen’s indirect involvement in this, investments made by her Duchy of Lancaster holdings have an indirect stake in a rent-to-own company accused of exploiting the poor by way of these offshore funds.

And now the political reaction. While the NDP will piously shout a chorus of “we told you that you should be going after offshore tax havens!” the Conservatives have already put out press releases describing this as having to do with cozy friends of the Liberals and that this is somehow hypocritical of their fighting for the middle class – never mind that I didn’t think that Mulroney was a Liberal, or the fact that most of these connections are fairly tangential and that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. But hey, this is about “Liberal aristocracy” and not the “little guy” that they now profess to fight for. (Remember the days when the Conservatives were the party of Bay Street? Me neither).

And Question Period today? I can pretty much guarantee you that after Andrew Scheer makes his dig about Trudeau not standing up for people of faith after the Governor General’s speech the other night (and four days later, the pundits still haven’t gotten up off of their fainting couches from it), it will be endless rounds of questions about these “Liberal insiders” hiding money offshore, tying Bill Morneau to this by way of the Morneau Sheppel/Barbados conspiracy theory, and Diane Lebouthillier will be up constantly to say that this government is going after tax evaders where the previous government cut funding, and that “the net is closing.”

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Roundup: Is there meaning to staff changes?

The Hill Times had an interesting piece out yesterday about staffing changes into and out of the PMO, and what it says about the culture of central control in the Trudeau-led government. While some of the commentary from former Conservative staffers about the marked similarities could be seen as trouble-making (and indeed, I’m not sure that we are quite at the level of central control that was exerted under the Harper years), I do think there is a kernel of truth in there which may simply be a reflection of politics in the 21st century, which is heavy on message discipline in order to deal with the pressures of a media apparatus that was not as strident as it was during the days of cabinet government of yore. Add to that, the increasingly horizontal power structures mean that the mere act of governing is not the same as it was during those days, so the ways in which the practice of government has evolved should be a consideration.

Nevertheless, the movement of this staff is quite likely indicative of more than just the usual cross-pollination that takes place over the course of a government, and the concerns about rookie ministers needing more hand-holding are probably not unfounded, and there have definitely been some stories of certain ministers having chronic staffing problems that can’t be dismissed out of hand. Nor can former staffers’ concerns about movement being based on connections over ability be shrugged off either, though one has to wonder if it was ever always thus, and it just manifests itself in slightly different ways today than in the past. In all, while I disbelieve the notion that the Trudeau PMO is just the Harper PMO redux, I will agree that there are probably a few more similarities than either would like to admit to openly.

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Roundup: Unleashing the two-year markers

With it being the two-year mark since the 2015 election, we’re going to start seeing a wave of thinkpieces and columns over the next few days (I suspect there will be a glut of weekend columns of dubious quality on the topic), but Paul Wells got things off to a good start yesterday with his piece on the matter. And he makes some pretty good points about how the complaints that this government hasn’t done anything are off the mark, because I do believe there are a number of things that we forget with our short attention spans, but there are also things that we don’t see obvious signs of, where the government has reformed a lot of the processes by which things get done – and this is a particularly big issue when it comes to trying to move the various Indigenous files forward. While it looks like there has been halting progress, people ignore that many of the problems are capacity-related, so if the government is moving to address those fundamental issues, it leads to better outcomes later than simply throwing money at problems only to make them worse in the long run – which happens all too often.

But Wells also acknowledges the bad, and just like with any government, there’s a lot of that too – the appointments process is a notable example, and Wells points to the bottleneck in the PMO, which goes along with the glut of rookie ministers (unavoidable with so few experienced MPs in caucus), and the problem with messaging. As I wrote about earlier this week, there is a real problem with the way this government shovels pabulum at everyone, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than under the previous government, when you were treated to non sequiturs rather than vague answers that resembled the topics you were asking about. And it’s this inability to have forthright communications that created much of this tax mess as well (but I will also lay some blame on bad and lazy reporting that was too quick to lean on opposition talking points as examples of accountability rather than reaching out to experts and then using that to push back against the tidal wave of misinformation that came out). And most especially the fact that this government was unwilling to actually fight back against the misinformation is why this mess of their own making has been compounded even more so.

“But it’s hard to be entirely saddened by Trudeau’s current discomfort, which if nothing else might shake his team out of the towering sanctimony that characterizes too much of its action and rhetoric,” Wells writes, and I fully agree. In fact, it’s the moments in the past couple of weeks where Trudeau and his ministers have dropped their pabulum-like talking points and been punchier and more authentic in their fighting back against their attackers that I’ve seen a spike in public responses to my own reporting of those instances. Hopefully they’re seeing that too, and it’ll prompt them to take more risks and to stop being so gods damned scripted. But this is also politics in 2017, and we’ve killed off spontaneity or the ability to debate, so I fear that my hopes for honest communications are doomed.

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Roundup: Cozy think tank takedowns

Over on Maclean’s yesterday was a longread “exposé” of Canada 2020 as an arm of the federal Liberal party which is exerting all manner of influence, and how potentially inappropriate that may be. But after reading the piece, I found it less a convincing exploration of the think tank than it was simply a recitation of names with “links” to the Liberals, followed by Duff Conacher’s railing about how awful it all is.

Pro tip: If your story relies on Duff Conacher’s analysis of government misdeeds, then it’s probably not worth reading. Conacher is a noted crank who has a history of distorting issues and losing court battles, and who has a number of particularly harmful ideological agendas that involve the destruction of the Canadian Crown, the Westminster system, making all prerogatives justiciable, and one supposes the installation of a Parliamentary Thought Police with himself at the head. (Note: I have had to quote Conacher for stories in the past, but have limited those interactions to narrow questions of ethics legislation rather than the breadth of topics that other rely on his analysis for, just as Anne Kingston does here). In other words, it’s the laziest possible journalist trick in Canada if you want to write a story that makes any government look bad, and you won’t get any meaningful analysis of the issue.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t questions that can be raised about Canada 2020’s cozy relationship with the Liberal Party – but I would say that it’s in all likelihood no more nefarious than the kinds of ideological alignment between something like the Fraser Institute and the Conservative Party, and it’s no more incestuous than the Broadbent Institute is with the NDP (to the point where Broadbent’s PressProgress “news” service is simply a branch of the party’s opposition research bureau).

Part of the problem is that political parties in Canada have looked south with this particular kind of envy about the think tank networks in Washington as something that should be emulated, without necessarily realizing that the American think tank network is intrinsically linked to the fact that their civil service is far more partisan than Canada’s, and that the usual cycle is for parties who aren’t in power to send their senior staffers to bide their time in said think tanks, and when they return to power, they fill their upper civil service ranks from those think tanks, while those who’ve lost power fill their own think tank ranks, and on it goes. That’s not how things work in Canada, and the need for said think tanks is not the same. There has also been talk from some partisans about how they need these think tanks to help them develop policies, as thought that wasn’t the job of the parties’ grassroots membership. So I do think we need to rethink the whole “think tank” system in Canada writ-large and what parties are expecting of them – especially when it comes to policy development – but I’m not sure that this story is doing that job.

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QP: The Morneau-Shepell conspiracy

Shortly after a fire alarm emptied out the Centre Block, and MPs made their way back into the building, Question Period got underway. Andrew Scheer led off, reading a stilted question about the Omar Khadr settlement in French. Justin Trudeau took the chance to take a partisan shot, saying that this was because the previous violated his rights — not mentioning that it was also the fault of previous Liberal governments — and reiterated his previous speech about how he was outraged and hopefully that outrage would ensure that future governments would not violate rights again. Scheer called out that the Liberals were at fault too, and Trudeau modified his response that it was about previous governments (plural) but added that this was not about Khadr, but about the government’s action and they should stand up for rights even when it’s not popular. Scheer then pivoted to the tax change issue, got the usual talking points from Trudeau, and when Scheer tried to skewer this as being one more cost to the middle class, and Trudeau reeled out his points about cutting taxes on the middle class. Scheer made a few digs at Trudeau’s own numbered corporation and his speaking fees before he was made party leader, but Trudeau didn’t take the bait. Pierre Nantel was up for the NDP, and railed about the announcements on cultural industries. Trudeau read a statement that assured him that they had unprecedented investment from Netflix, and that they would ensure that Canadian creators would benefit. Rachel Blaney asked in English, decrying that Facebook and Google were not being made to pay, but Trudeau reiterated his assurances that Canadian producers would benefit from these funds. Nantel repeated the question in scripted English, Trudeau reiterated that this was great news for Canadian cultural industries, and Alexandre Boulerice closed the round by railing that other media companies weren’t being taxed. Trudeau repeated that they were looking to support the industry as it transitions.

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Roundup: Signs Morneau is listening

For all of the bellyaching from those who consider the government’s tax proposals to be a done deal that may not even get enabling legislation but would instead be rammed through by way of a Ways and Means Motion, it looks like those fears are for naught. In a tele-town hall yesterday, Bill Morneau admitted that there are problem areas that need to be addressed, and they plan to take what they’ve heard in the consultations and try to fix the implementing legislation, especially when it comes to things like how it affects the sale of family farms. Economist Lindsay Tedds was listening in, and she provided a play-by-play with some instant analysis here:

https://twitter.com/LindsayTedds/status/913090762035699712

Meanwhile, Chantal Hébert wonders if Morneau can’t pull out a win that will let both sides claim victory, even if Morneau himself emerges wounded from the process. This being said, Hébert makes the point about the lack of applause from the Liberal benches, which Bob Fife made on The West Block on the weekend, and it bugs me that pundits are still trying to read into this because the Liberals stopped clapping in January 2016, except for rare verbal zingers. It’s not indicative of anything other than an attempt to restore a bit of dignity to the exercise of QP, and making a deal out of it to fit a narrative is bad form.

The Senate’s National Finance committee will examine the proposals as well, and the debate getting there contained some of the usual cheek of some particular senators.

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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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