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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Roundup: Fundraising fears

It’s been a curious thing the last few days, watching in QP as the Conservatives are tearing their hair out over this Bill Morneau fundraiser in Halifax and raising the spectre of the wealthy contributing to politics, and calling Bill Morneau a millionaire like it’s a bad thing. As though suddenly the Conservative Party of Canada has become overrun by socialists or something. Really, it’s just their cheap populism run amok, trying to cast themselves as champions of ordinary Canadians (never mind that their policies disproportionately aided wealthier Canadians during their decade in power), and if they really were the champions of the working class, you would think the rest of their policies to date would be different (such as around labour unions or the Canada Pension Plan, or anything like that), but no. And if you think this is really a question about ethics or conflicts of interest, well, no, the Ethics Commissioner herself has stated that this fundraiser was above board, but hey, if they wanted to tighten the rules around fundraising, she’s been asking them to do that for years and after a decade in power, they wouldn’t do that either. So here we are, with a desperate attempt to frame perfectly above-board fundraising as “cash for access” and somehow comparable to the situation in Ontario, which it’s not. Meanwhile, Howard Anglin had a perfectly apropos tweet storm on this, so I’ll let him finish off here.

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Roundup: Laying the groundwork for deadlock

Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen the markers being placed, and the groundwork is now being laid for the likely deadlock that will be the committee report on electoral reform. With the last of the cross-country consultations taking place this week, the parties started marking their turf this week – the NDP with their vacant report showing “overwhelming” support for proportional voting – along with demands for local representation, which means that they’re going to demand Mixed-Member Proportional, which was their intention all along. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have no position other than they demand a referendum, and yesterday they released the results of their surveys which came back “overwhelmingly” in favour of such a thing. (Never mind that both the Conservatives and the NDP had pretty much zero rigour when it comes to how they achieved those results, and the selection bias was pretty evident, they’re only interested in shock-and-awe headline results). Oh, and the Conservatives insist that they’re willing to find a consensus on a system – really! – but without a referendum, it’s no way no how.

In the middle of this, the Liberals are all going to start turning in the reports from their town hall meetings, all of which focused on “values” rather than specific systems, in the likely hopes that they too will have enough loose data that they can fudge into justifying whatever system they want – or, in the likely event of a deadlock, to justify that the current system already reflects those values (except of course for proportionality, but we all know that demand is based on a logical fallacy, and it would be great if they would actually admit that), so they can wiggle out of their commitment to reforming said system wholesale. Kady O’Malley thinks that this will really come down to the NDP deciding on whether to stick to their guns on proportionality or if they’ll put some water in their wine and accept ranked ballots, but given their completely specious rhetoric on the subject to date (“First-past-the-post on steroids!”), I think that’ll be too hard of a pill for them to swallow.

So, with any luck, this whole thing will blow up in everyone’s faces, and the government will have to swallow their pride, admit defeat, and move onto other, more important issues. One can always hope, anyway.

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Roundup: Harder’s arrogant dismissal

It is probably not without a certain amount of chutzpah that Senator Peter Harder went before the Senate’s modernisation committee yesterday, and not only lectured to them about what the Senate does, but offered his particular thoughts on how the institution should be reformed, and most of all, having the gall to suggest that there was nothing that could be learned from the House of Lords and their integration of crossbenchers. Harder, with his mere couple of months of experience, has taken it upon himself to declare that the Senate should comprise of the government representative (a creature which does not actually appear in convention, statute or logic) and independents who will loosely affiliate on an ad hoc basis – no government, no opposition, no parties, no partisanship.

Give. Me. A. Break.

This declared allergy to partisanship in the upper chamber has reached the point of being utterly ridiculous. Parties exist for a reason. No one is arguing that the current power structure in the Senate needs to be broken apart and for independents to be given more power and resources, but blowing up parties is not the way to go, nor is assiduously screening nominees for any past hint of partisanship because there is nothing inherently wrong with partisanship. If Harder thinks that 105 individuals can sufficiently organise themselves for debates without any kind of structure – that his office doesn’t impose anyway – is lunacy. And it does concern me that Harder is making a bit of a power grab, especially considering that his office is already poised to start offering staffing services for the incoming batch of senators, which is not only unseemly but once again looks to bigfoot the work that the Independent Senators Group has been doing to come up with a bottom-up approach to organising unaligned senators in a manner consistent with the operation of the Chamber while working to give them caucus-like powers for committee assignments and with any luck, research dollars and support. But this isn’t the first time that Harder has attempted to bigfoot this nascent group, and I think that’s a very real problem. His attitude towards the modernisation committee – and in particular his arrogant dismissal of the crossbencher model (which the Independent Senate Group has been looking toward) – is a worrying sign.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne not only unhelpfully endorses the Segal-Kirby call for the Senate to limit its veto to a suspensive one (because hey, it’s not like we might need an option to stop a prime minister with a majority from passing really terrible legislation), but goes one step further and proposes that any bill in the Senate that has not been passed in six months is deemed to have passed, so that when they can’t procedurally speed through certain bills that get bottlenecked in committees (like any private member’s bill, many of which are objectively terrible), or when they demand more time and attention, they should just be passed anyway? Seriously? What a way to run a parliament.

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Roundup: To give or not to give Sophie resources

At his session-ender press conference, Trudeau highlighted three carefully chosen accomplishments, gave no additional clarity on the missing and murdered Indigenous women file, and didn’t commit to an open process for fighter procurement. All of that was par for the course, given that it was a lot of back-patting, but also a reminder that there is still a lot of work ahead, and he doesn’t want to look like he’s patting himself on the back too much. What I found more curious was in response to a question that he said that his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, should be able to have resources to carry out the duties that she has set about to undertake, but that he also doesn’t want to create a formal role for prime ministerial spouses going forward so that there is no obligation for the future. There is a certain amount of sense to this position, but it’s a very fine line to walk. Currently, she has one assistant and is given help from PMO staff on an ad hoc basis, as needed. Speculation with the staffing changes made to the household, particularly around nannies, has to do with creating space on the staff for an additional assistant for Grégoire Trudeau, but we have yet to see that materialise. None of it answers the specific existential question however on the role that prime ministerial spouses play. The reluctance to create an official position is a good instinct to have, especially because it bears reminding again and again that we are already a constitutional monarchy, and we have a royal family to take on these particular roles. In fact, the GG and his spouse also take on these kinds of feel-good roles in the absence of a more present royal family, which leaves very little room for a prime ministerial spouse to take it on. What they have to trade in – particularly Grégoire Trudeau – is a kind of celebrity status, especially as the previous few prime ministerial spouses haven’t had much in the way of a career of their own, and for Grégoire Trudeau, it has become her career to be a public speaker at events and for particular charity groups – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It nevertheless makes for a sticky situation with who pays for the help that such a career entails, particularly if it becomes an important optical consideration that she not be paid for the work (and if she were paid, even on a cost-recovery basis, one can already imagine people hissing “how dare she!” on accepting money from charities no matter that it’s the cost of doing business and standard practice). So we are between that proverbial rock and hard place. I don’t have a solution to offer either than to say that there is no winning, and it now becomes a way of finding the least unpalatable option, and that may wind up being what Trudeau is signalling – resources but the explicit rule that this is not formalising the role in any way. His reminding people that we have a royal family for these kinds of things wouldn’t hurt either so that we can stop this constant “First Lady” talk.

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Roundup: A test of bicameral wills?

Whether through stubbornness or pique, the House of Commons voted to adopt nearly all of the amendments the Senate proposed to Bill C-14, with the exception of the biggest and most important one – the one which would eliminate the requirement of a “reasonably foreseeable” death before someone could be granted medical assistance in dying. And then, the Commons more or less announced that tomorrow will be their last sitting day before they rise for the summer, essentially daring the Senate to return a bill to a chamber that has gone home (well, they are supposed to come back on the 29th for Obama’s address), and leaving the spectre of there being no law in place, which has all manner of medical community stakeholders concerned (never mind that the framework of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision is in place and would ensure that nobody would be charged for providing the service). It’s a little more ballsy than I would have given the Liberals credit for a few weeks ago, particularly before I saw the background paper that Jody Wilson-Raybould released with her…questionable justification for drafting the law the way it was. Now comes the difficult part – will the Senate stick to their guns and insist that the amendments to eliminate “reasonably foreseeable” be maintained if the bill is to remain constitutional, or will they back down because they’ve made their point and the Commons is the elected chamber?

This is the part where I chime in with a few reminders that this is the reason why our Senate exists the way it does – it enjoys institutional independence and cannot be threatened by the Commons so that they can push back on bills they find unconstitutional, particularly a controversial one like this, where MPs are proving themselves to be timid in the face of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that lays out what they deem to be an appropriate constitutional reading of the issue – something the government is basically flouting in an attempt to push back on this bit of social evolution for as long as possible. And as I’ve stated before, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Commons is waiting for the Senate to “force” them to advance things. Will it turn into a ping-pong between the chambers? Not for much longer, I would say, but it is going to depend on who blinks. If the Senate does dig in its heels on this and insist that doing otherwise would be to let an unconstitutional bill pass, then there is every reason to suspect the government take the “forced into this” option and let the Senate be the punching bag when religious and disability groups complain. There are people suggesting that the Supreme Court should break the impasse, which I would loudly denounce because it’s the very last thing we need. It’s not their job, and it would signal a complete abdication of the rights of Parliament and Responsible Government that our predecessors fought long and hard for. (Also, stop demanding these bills be referred to the Court – legislating is not a game of “Mother May I?”). This whole exercise is why the Senate exists. Let’s let them do their jobs.

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