Roundup: Picking the overseers

The composition of the forthcoming National Security Committee of Parliamentarians has been brewing under the surface for a while now, given that the legislation has taken a long time to get through Parliament, but it looks like more consternation is on the way. The NDP have complained to the National Post’s John Ivison that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked for four names from their caucus for consideration on the committee, and that the PM would pick one, as is his right under the Act. The reason, according to the PMO, is to try and build a committee reflective of Canada – so essentially that it’s not all straight, white men looking at national security issues from that particular lens – and that would be a very easy thing to do. And the NDP’s one and only pick for their party’s representative on the committee, Murray Rankin, is just that – a straight, white man who happens to be eminently qualified for the role. And so Mulcair is, as he so often does, pitching a fit about it.

I’m a bit torn on the outrage here because as much as this is being spun as Trudeau having contempt for Parliament and being a Harper-esque figure in that regard, this is exactly how he drafted the legislation and how it passed, so unlike many of the tactics that Harper employed, he was upfront about his plans how he planned to achieve them. Now, granted, many of Trudeau’s plans and promises have been utterly boneheaded (see: electoral reform, “modernizing” the House of Commons, his “benign neglect” of the Senate, etcetera, etcetera), but he generally hasn’t tried to stealthily undermine the institutions or actively firebomb them. So there’s that. Also, this is how our system of government tends to work – a prime minister who enjoys the confidence of Parliament makes the appointment, and is judged on the quality of them both by Parliament and the electorate. And I get why he would want to ensure a diverse committee makeup, and not want to necessarily have to rely on his own party members to make up the more diverse members of the committee, but rather share that load between all of the parties. Nevertheless, there is something unseemly about not letting opposition parties choose their own representatives (though I hardly imagine that the members he chooses would be any friendlier to him and his agenda than one that the opposition party leader would choose). On the other hand, selection powers can be abused, and things done for ostensibly good reasons (like diversity) can have all kinds of unintended consequences. But in the meantime, this will start to look like yet another self-inflicted wound for Trudeau.

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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: 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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QP: The Trudeau/Scheer damp squib

A new week, and Justin Trudeau was back in the Commons after a morning at Niagara Falls to do a guest spot on US television, and before his meeting with the visiting president of Chile. After a moment of silence for the victims of the London Bridge attack, Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, asking for an update and reaction to the attack. Trudeau gave condolences to the family of the Canadian woman who died in the attack, and noted that an hour before, he had spoken to Theresa May about the issue an hour before, and then offered his well wishes to Scheer as new leader of the Opposition. Scheer then turned to the Infrastructure Bank, and concerns that it would assume all risks with future projects. Trudeau didn’t really answer, but talked about the need for more infrastructure investments across the country. Scheer insisted it was all about rich friends of the PM, but Trudeau reminded him that they raised taxes on the wealthy to lower taxes on the middle class. Scheer then changed topics to ask about the politicised nomination of Madeleine Meilleur as Language Commissioner and demanded that it be cancelled. Trudeau said that it was important to get the right people for the job, regardless of their political history — a new talking point. Scheer tried again in English, and Trudeau dug in a little more this time, pointing out how politicised the previous government’s appointment process was whereas the current government had created a new process. Alexandre Boulerice led for the NDP, railing that the Infrastructure Bank would necessitate user fees, and Trudeau stuck to points about the need to invest in infrastructure. Daniel Blaikie repeated the question in English, and Trudeau noted that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities was applauding the decision to unlock more capital in that way. Blaikie then turned to the Meilleur nomination, and Trudeau repeated his points about merit-based appointments. Boulerice repeated Blaikie’s question in French, and Trudeau repeated his answer.

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QP: More Meilleur, more problems

While the PM was back in town, he chose to meet the civil service summer students instead of attending QP, meaning that Andrew Scheer’s big face-off was going to have to wait for next week. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read some condemnation about the government not voting in favour of an autism partnership. Jane Philpott noted that this was largely a provincial matter and then listed billions of dollars that were spent on programs. Scheer then moved onto a consular issue with a Canadian couple detained in China, and Chrystia Freeland noted her own concern with the case, and assured him that she has raised it at a high level and would meet with their daughter later today. Scheer switched to French to list some condemnation about Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination, including accusations that two of Joly’s staffers used to work for Meilleur. Joly reminded him that those in her office had no part in the selection process. Scheer switched to English to ask it again, and Joly reiterated her answer. Scheer tried again, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, tried to poke holes in the story that Meilleur did not have conversations about the appointment with Butts and Telford. Joly said that they did not have that conversation. Mulcair insisted then that Meilleur lied to Parliament, and demanded to know if Joly’s staff were consulted, and Joly reiterated that they were not part of the team. Mulcair returned to the supposed involvement of Butts and Telford, and Joly reiterated her previous answers. Mulcair’s final question spun up the torque on Butts’ supposed involvement, and Joly responded by listing Meilleur’s qualifications.

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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.

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Roundup: Changing the face of the bench

The Globe and Mail has an interesting read about the way in which the current government is making a concerted effort to appoint more women to the bench as it (slowly) makes its judicial appointments. While the numbers of women appointed are disproportionate to the numbers that have applied, that seems less concerning to me because it has been shown that fewer women will apply to positions like these because they tend to downplay their own qualifications (just as with trying to get more women to run for public office). I also think that the justice minister has a point when she says that part of the reason for so few appointments being made from visible minorities is in part because there are too few applying, and too few in the justice system as a whole. I also look to something that Senator Jaffer said to me in a piece I wrote for the Law Times about the judicial appointments issue, which is that for many of the appointment committees, they don’t tend to look beyond their own boxes when they make recommendations, so we see fewer women and visible minorities being put forward, and that proactive approaches have been shown to be needed in the past. This government seems to be willing to go some of the distance in bridging that gap, but as always, more work needs to be done, and yes, it’s taking far too long in most of the cases.

What does bother me is the notion that by appointing women and minorities is that this is simply about quotas, and it’s the exact same things we’ve been hearing in the past couple of weeks with regards to people making their evaluations of the federal cabinet, and the quiet clucking of tongues when they go “rookie, diversity hire, not very competent.” Never mind that in many cases, much of the judging is harsh, unfair to the person or the situation they were put into, or deliberately misconstrued to present a worse picture than what actually happened (such as with Maryam Monsef). Never mind the fact that if none of these people are given a chance as rookies, they won’t actually get experience. And yes, some of them are performing poorly (and even more curiously, the ones who I think actually are having problems are the ones who are never the ones being written about). But hearing the constant quota refrain is getting tiresome to read about.

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Roundup: The hole that the Forces find themselves in

While I noted that this was certainly used as an attempt to change the channel during QP yesterday, I wanted to spend a couple of more minutes talking about the big defence policy teaser that Harjit Sajjan gave yesterday, which basically made the perennial statement that the previous government didn’t do a very good job, which is why we’re in such a terrible mess. All governments say this, and future governments will too. And while Conservatives in my reply column get indignant, and while Rona Ambrose emailed her own fact-check, it too contains a lot of rose-coloured history.

Ambrose mentions things like the Leopard 2 tanks (the decision to purchase which were questioned considering it’s obsolete Cold War era technology bought for a counter-insurgency war), the Cyclone helicopters (which were problem-plagued and didn’t even have shielded electronics, which were easily knocked out by the radar on our frigates), the new Arctic Offshore patrol ships (known affectionately as “slushbreakers” because they can’t even cut through the ice in a gin and tonic and yet they’re supposed to be used for Arctic operations), and then there are the supply ships which they cancelled, leaving us with no supply capacity in our navy. So yeah, they did so much with their investment in the military.

Much of the reaction to Sajjan’s speech was that yes, we’re in a hole, but the government hasn’t committed to reinvesting either. Partly they have, with the earmarked dollars that will follow once there is a plan in place. That plan will be part of the actual rollout of the Defence Policy, and the prime minister acknowledged in QP yesterday that investment in the military would follow the policy, and yes, the policy is important to have in place first because it’s hard to plan to spend if you don’t know why you’re spending or what the plan is for our Forces to be doing. So it makes sense to wait for a plan before there are dollars to follow it. It should also be noted that this government is not following the more recent trend of putting all of its plans in the budget, so we may yet so more dollars flowing (but it remains to see how many dollars, considering the fiscal situation).

All of this being said, we will still need to acknowledge that funding likely won’t be enough to completely get things back on the right track, and that complaints about underfunding will continue into future. This new funding likely won’t even get us close to our 2 percent of GDP NATO target (not that such a target counts for a lot). Suffice to say, I’m not sure that any party should be patting themselves on the back.

For some more reaction here’s Dave Perry on Power Play, and Stephen Saideman offers his thoughts on the teaser here.

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Roundup: Troubling rumblings in civil-military relations

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth about comments that Harjit Sajjan made in India that he was the architect of Operation Medusa in Afghanistan, before he later retracted and said that he was part of the team led by General Fraser. Part of why this has been mystifying for many is the fact that the error was made in his prepared remarks, which should have been caught but wasn’t, and now there are accusations of glory-seeking and trying to claim credit, which seems out of character for someone who seemed to rebuff the label of being “badass” when he was first appointed minister. I would say that the days it took for him to issue a proper apology are also mystifying, but this is politics, and nobody likes to admit error and there is likely a reflexive instinct there that needs to be dragged out. Because politics gonna politics, unfortunately.

What is more disturbing in this is the fact that you have both active and former military personnel calling for Sajjan’s resignation, which is a pretty big breach of civil-military relations. What I find even more disturbing is the fact that if you add this to the allegations that VADM Mark Norman was trying to make political decisions and using leaks to pressure the government to adopting his position on that procurement contract is that there may be a growing breach of the civil-military relationship in this country, and that is a Very Bad Thing.

One of Sajjan’s caucus colleagues, Mark Miller, who also served in Afghanistan, added his own defence of Sajjan:

One more thing: could we please stop with demanding resignations for everything? That’s not what ministerial responsibility means.

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Roundup: Brace for blanket coverage

Today is the big day, and it’ll be wall-to-wall coverage of Justin Trudeau’s big meeting with Donald Trump, and we won’t be able to talk about anything else I’m sure. So here we go. At Trudeau’s meeting with Donald Trump he will apparently be seeking assurances on pre-clearance issues, while they will also be having a working lunch where the topic will be women executives. No, really. And the tone now is apparently going to be business instead of “love-in” (though I’m not sure anybody has had a love-in with Trump).

The Conservatives are “pausing their hostility” with Trudeau in advance of the meeting, apparently showing solidarity in advance of it (though you wouldn’t have known it from QP last week). Here we have some advice from a former Canadian ambassador to Washington, while Anne Kingston wonders which version of Trudeau will be at the meeting. Marc Garneau, who chairs the Canada-US cabinet committee, says that today’s visit won’t focus on our countries’ differences. And Tristin Hopper offers some slightly tongue-in-cheek advice for the meeting.

And then there’s the historical context. Here’s a look at how previous PMs have dealt with unpopular presidents, and the lessons taken from Trump’s meetings with Theresa May and Shinzo Abe. Maclean’s has a photo reminder of meetings going back to the seventies.

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