Roundup: More dubious Senate suggestions

Over the weekend, there was a piece on Policy Options from University of Manitoba professor emeritus Paul Thomas about the “new” and improved Senate. While most of the piece was a recounting of what brought us to the current set of circumstances in the Upper Chamber, it ended with a series of recommendations of what Thomas thought the Senate should adopt going forward as it enters into this uncharted territory. But I’m not entirely convinced by his particular reasoning. To wit:

  1. The Senate should only engage in “judicious combativeness” by rarely seeking to defeat or fundamentally alter legislation, but use more subtle means of altering policy over the medium and long term. Which is fine on the surface, but legislation is contextual, and the Senate has long engaged in long-term policy development through committee studies that are usually of some of the top caliber in the country, doing more than Royal Commissions could on a more cost-effective basis. This suggestion is not much of a change from the status quo.
  2. More pre-study of regular legislation. I’m a bit dubious of this because while pre-study makes sense with some bills that are more complex or time-sensitive, it defeats part of the purpose of the Senate to do the work after the Commons has in order to look for things that the Commons missed and addressing it then, rather than trying to run committee processes in parallel. Meanwhile, there was a time when the Senate did a lot more pre-study of bills, and were subsequently accused of just rubber-stamping legislation when it made its way to the Senate, and bitter feelings erupted.
  3. Including timetables with legislation. Nope. Nooooope. This is the kind of nonsense that Senator Peter Harder is trying to bring in with his business committee nonsense, and it goes a long way to defeating the purpose of the Senate. Sometimes sober second thought takes time. Sometimes it takes a while for senators who see problems with legislation to convince the rest of the chamber, and including timetables from the start not only create a largely unnecessary sense of haste (and the Senate generally passes legislation more swiftly than the Commons, with few exceptions already) means that you’re applying unnecessary pressure that gives the message that you would rather a rubber stamp than sober second thought. And like I said – legislation is contextual, and no two bills are the same, so to have someone come in from the start and start assigning timetables lacks any sense.

I get that there’s a mood to pre-emptively start reining in a more activist upper chamber, and I have my own concerns with some of the newer appointees and their sense of self, which is all well and good. But to start demanding rule or process changes is foolhardy, and will almost certainly result in unintended consequences. The “new and improved” Senate is working, and they’re responding to the signals that the government is sending them when it comes to their willingness to accepted amended bills. There’s no problem to fix, and I wish that people would leave well enough alone.

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Roundup: Procedural shenanigans beget the new anthem

There has been some drama in the Senate over the past couple of days as the procedural shenanigans to bring the national anthem bill to a final vote culminated in a motion to call the vote, and eventually that happened. The bill has passed, and the new national anthem will be law once the Governor General gives it royal assent. But the procedural moves have the Conservatives in a high dudgeon, somewhat legitimately.

My understanding of events was that the main motion to call the vote has been on the Order Paper for months, and was finally called Tuesday night. This was a debatable motion, and likely would have sparked a few weeks of adjournments and debate, but ultimately would have delayed the vote for only that long. But a second, also legitimate procedural move was used by another Independent senator immediately following, and Speaker apparently didn’t hear Senator Don Plett’s desire to debate it. What I’ve been able to gather is that this was likely a mistake given lines of sight, but were compounded by tactical errors on the Conservatives’ part in demanding to debate the first motion and not the second (or something to that effect). Points order were debated last night, but they had agreed to end the sitting at 4 PM in order to have the votes at 5:30, and when they didn’t get unanimous consent to extend the sitting, debate collapsed and when 5:30 rolled around, the Conservatives boycotted the vote in protest. According to those I’ve consulted, the moves were all legitimate but messy, and have the danger of setting up bad precedent for not allowing debate on this kind of motion.

The Conservatives in the Senate, meanwhile, are caterwauling that their democratic rights have been taken away, and there is talk about conspiracy between Mélanie Joly’s staff, and other threads that are hard to track when they’re throwing them against the wall like spaghetti. And while I share the concerns about bad precedent, I can’t say that I have too much sympathy because they’ve used (and one could argue abused) procedure for over a year to keep the bill at Third Reading, with the intent to ultimately delay it until it died on the Order Paper. They insist that they offered the chance to amend it to the more grammatically correct “thou dost in us command” rather than the clunky “in all of us command,” but I find it a bit disingenuous, because it was simply another delay tactic. And I’ve argued before that this continued tendency to use procedural tactics to delay bills is going to end up biting them in the ass, especially because it plays into Senator Peter Harder’s hands in his quest to overhaul the chamber in order to strip it of its Westminster character. The Conservatives are overplaying their hand, and it’s going to make it very difficult to drum up enough legitimate concern to stop Harder when crunch time comes, and they should be very aware of that fact.

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Roundup: On leaders, interim or “parliamentary”

In the wake of the Patrick Brown resignation, the Ontario PC caucus gathered behind closed doors to name Vic Fedeli as their “parliamentary leader,” a term that irks me to no end. Fedeli came out and called himself “party leader” rather than “interim” or “parliamentary,” clearly signalling that he wanted this to be permanent going into the election, but within hours, the party insisted that they would indeed hold a full leadership contest to be concluded by March 31st, where the party membership would vote on a leader (and yes, Fedeli will be running while still acting as the interim/“parliamentary” leader).

The adoption of the term “parliamentary leader” is recent, and as far as I know was only first used by the NDP to give a name to what Guy Caron is doing as Jagmeet Singh’s proxy inside the Commons while Singh refuses to get his own seat, and generally avoids being in Ottawa as much as possible. Caron is left to be the de facto leader, even going so far as to make key decisions around staffing in the leader’s office in Ottawa, which would seem to make him de jure leader as well and Singh to be some kind of figurehead, wandering the land. But why it’s offensive as a concept is because it attempts to normalize this notion that the leader isn’t in the parliamentary caucus – something that is an affront to our Westminster system. The Ontario PC party using this term both affirms the use of this term, and opens up the notion of a similar arrangement where a new leader could be chosen by the membership while not having a seat, further taking us down this road to debasing our system.

https://twitter.com/mikepmoffatt/status/956958255129006081

Mike Moffatt, meanwhile, has the right idea – all leaders should be considered “interim,” because they should be able to be removed at a moment’s notice by the caucus (given that the caucus should select the leader, and that the leader should live in fear of the caucus). What happens instead with electing leaders by the membership is that they feel they have a sense of “democratic legitimacy,” which they feel insulates them from accountability, and they wield their imagined authority over the caucus, meaning that it’s the caucus who has to fear the leader instead of the other way around – especially if the rules persist that the leader signs their nomination papers. That’s not the way our system was designed to function, and it’s caused great damage to our system, and it gets worse as time goes on, with each iteration trying to turn it more and more into a quasi-presidential primary. The way the Ontario PC party has had to deal with this Patrick Brown situation within the context of their bastardized rules (and fetishizing the 200,000 members signed up in their last leadership contest, the bulk of them by Brown and his team) is utterly debasing to Westminster parliaments. More than anything, the events of the past week should be an object lesson in why we should restore caucus selection, should anyone be listening.

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Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

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Roundup: Demands for MP parental leave

Some MPs are looking for changes to the Parliament of Canada Act in order to better accommodate parental leaves, given that they have no provision for them, and MPs start getting salaries clawed back if they miss more than 21 sitting days. (Mind you, records of those absences aren’t made public, so we have no way of checking). And while I’m sympathetic to the notion that there is no parental leave, I find myself sighing because there is this constant need by MPs and the press to describe Parliament as a “workplace,” and try and ham-fistedly force a number of hackneyed comparisons to justify it.

No. Parliament is not a “workplace.” And MPs most certainly are not employees.

I understand that it’s a job that’s not the friendliest for new parents. And I get that there is this desire to get younger voices into parliament, and there is a need to facilitate them, which is great. But I get very, very nervous every time MPs start talking about how they want to start changing things to make the place more “family friendly,” because every time they’ve done that to date, they’ve made things worse. Eliminating evening sittings to be more “family friendly” had a devastating effect on collegiality because MPs no longer ate together three nights a week. Now they’re looking to avoid coming to Ottawa altogether, instead appearing by videoconference instead, and no doubt they’ll demand to be able to vote remotely as well. And that is a bridge too far.

When you get elected, it’s to do the job in Ottawa. Work in the riding is secondary to your role as an MP, and that role is to hold government to account. Meeting constituents, while good small-p politics, is a secondary consideration to your duties. And the added danger in appearing remotely is not only a further breakdown in what remains of collegiality, it’s that the lack of facetime with other MPs and with witnesses who appear at committees means that there is no ability to forge connections or have off-script conversations, which are the lifeblood of politics. You need to show up to do the job. Your job is to be in Ottawa to vote and be seen voting, and to attend debate and committees. You knew that when you ran for office, and you knew that when you decided to have a child while in office. Trying to do this job remotely means that soon every MP will start to demand it, until the Commons is reduced to a small cadre of people there to fulfil quorum while everyone else attends to the “very important business” in their ridings.

The other point is that these MPs are not lacking in resources when it comes to finding childcare solutions – they are very well compensated, and can afford options that most Canadians can’t. That does matter in the equation, and why my sympathy has its limits.

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Roundup: A new justice named

Justice Sheilah L. Martin of the Courts of Appeal for Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, has been nominated as the next Supreme Court of Canada justice, slated to replace outgoing Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. Martin, who was born and educated in Quebec and is fluently bilingual and knowledgeable in both common law and Quebec’s civil code, and has been on the bench in the North as well as the west. She was once dean of a law school and has not only contributed to legal scholarship, but has also weighed in on some significant cases in her time on the bench, with pretty well-considered judgments. She is not, however, Indigenous, like many had been hoping. (For more on Martin, here is the link to her application questionnaire, and also follow the embedded Tonda McCharles tweet thread).

The issue of demanding bilingual judges is going to be an impediment for Indigenous candidates, for whom it creates an additional barrier, and when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh dared to suggest that perhaps they create an exception to that would-be rule for Indigenous nominees, he was forced by the rest of his party to walk back from that statement in favour of some platitudes about helping would-be Indigenous candidates with official language capacity instead. Note that NDP MP Romeo Saganash has come out against party policy to say that this demand for official-language bilingual judges hurts the cause of more Indigenous justices on the bench, but apparently that perspective is being silenced.

While some Indigenous lawyers are upset by the choice of a non-Indigenous jurist, I think we do need to recognize that the feeder pools with provincial Superior courts and the Courts of Appeal still have large diversity problems, which is why this government went about reforming the process to appoint those judges (and partially why it’s taking so long to fill those vacancies). When the trickle-down starts to happen there, it will mean a bigger pool of diverse candidates available in the future that may not be there right now. Of course, we won’t know the demographics of who applied to this round, so that does matter as well (and we won’t know for another month), so we may get more answers at that point.

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QP: Poetry and cheap theatre

While both Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer were present, in advance of the government’s apology to persecuted LGBT Canadians, Bill Morneau held a brief press conference an hour before Question Period to say that he couldn’t be in attendance that day, but he refuted the Conservative insinuations being made that he was engaged in insider trading, and suggested that they make the allegations in a forum not protected by parliamentary privilege.

Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read some propaganda about CSIS warnings that ISIS was training operatives to come back to Canada, and railed about the government paying for reintegration rather than focusing on security. Trudeau assured him that they took security seriously, and had a broad range of tools to do so. Scheer listed the tough measures the previous government took while accusing the current one of relying on “poetry and podcasts,” which set Trudeau off, and he listed off the Islamophobia and rhetoric that lost the Conservatives the last election. When Scheer tried again, angrier in tone (but still not rid of his smirk or breathy delivery), Trudeau said that it was clear that Stephen Harper’s Conservative parties was alive and well, and he wished them luck with that plan. Scheer then pivoted to whether the PM had trust in Bill Morneau, and Trudeau listed off the great things that Morneau had done. When Scheer listed off the disingenuous items he was attempting to brand Morneau with — including the insinuations of insider trading — to which Trudeau went into lecture mode, saying that they expect the opposition to raise substantive issues but are only getting personal attacks, and the way to judge if there was any substance to them is whether they would repeat them outside the Chamber. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and raised the possibility of another Ethics Commissioner investigation, to which Trudeau reiterated that it was too bad they were resorting to personal attacks. After another round of the same, Nathan Cullen got up and laid out a charge of insider trading, uttering the words themselves, but Trudeau basically tut-tutted the exchange and listed accomplishments. Cullen amped up his sanctimony, and Trudeau reminded him that the Ethics Commissioner exists to keep these issues out of the political fray.

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Roundup: Some actual accountability

If there’s one committee of the House of Commons that I wish I could spend more time following, it’s the Public Accounts committee. It may not be one of the sexier committees tackling the hot issues of the day, but instead, it’s the heart and soul of what parliament is about – holding the government to account. Alas, my day-to-day work means that I don’t have the time to follow it like I did in years gone by, but I try to keep an eye on them when I can.

In the wake of the latest Auditor General’s report, the committee’s vice-chairs – NDP and Liberal, as the Conservatives chair this particular committee, as one might expect for a committee dedicated to holding the government accountable – are vowing that they will hold hearings on each chapter of the latest report (rather than just selected ones) because they are concerned about his level of frustration that departments aren’t keeping their focus on how services are delivered to citizens (rather than their own internal processes), and more than that, they plan to keep calling back senior civil servants to ensure that they’re shaping up. This can only be a good thing.

Over the past few years, that committee has been more stringent in ensuring that they get progress reports from departments on implementing recommendations from AG reports, but now it looks like they’re willing to go a bit further, which is encouraging. This is the kind of work that frankly, we don’t see enough of from MPs, so I’m glad it’s not only getting done, but getting a bit of attention. That can only bode well for parliamentary democracy.

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Roundup: PBO confirmations on tax changes

The Parliamentary Budget Officer came out with a report yesterday on the proposed tax changes around passive income, and all of the headlines screamed that they could net the federal government $6 billion. “Oh, but it’s not a cash grab,” opposition MPs said sarcastically in return, including during QP yesterday. The problem, of course, is that if they read, that $6 billion would be over two decades, and more importantly, that the PBO confirmed that three percent of personal corporation holders generate some 90 percent of passive income, which confirms that the point of the measures is to target those who incorporate for the sole purpose of investing and taking advantage of the lower rates as a part of that.

To help walk us through the report and its findings, here are Kevin Milligan and Lindsay Tedds:

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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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