Roundup: The demise of Energy East

The news that TransCanada decided to cancel their plans for the Energy East pipeline yesterday created a predictable firestorm of reaction, from the gloating of Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, outgoing Saskatchewan premier getting in his last kicks, to the histrionics of the Conservative caucus. The government’s line is market conditions have changed since the project was first proposed – and they’re entirely correct. But that doesn’t stop the rhetoric, either from TransCanada itself, or from the Conservatives, who are peddling some incredulous, mind-boggling lines to vilify the government.

But seriously, there are plenty of charts and graphs that show how the market conditions have changed beyond just the world price of oil (which is a bit part of it), but that the capacity with the other approved pipelines changes the equation for the hole that Energy East would have filled, and it’s no longer clear that it was a clear-cut decision after all.

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Also, it should be mentioned that as much as TransCanada is blaming government regulation, they did balls this up on their own end more than once, and do need to take some of the blame along the way. But why take that blame when you can shake your fist at the government?

And this having been said, there is a proud Alberta tradition that is underlying all of this. Because some zombies refuse to die.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells looks at the current record of the government in trying to attract investment, and wonders if we really are a place that will get the big things built, or if it will all collapse in tears and recriminations, driving investors away.

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QP: Energy East and Barbados

After the Energy East cancellation announcement this morning, you just knew that this would be the fodder for increasingly hysterical denunciations during QP today. Justin Trudeau was present, but Andrew Scheer was not, so it remained to be seen how this would play out.

Lisa Raitt led off instead, mini-lectern on desk, blaming the government for killing Energy East with their ideology. Justin Trudeau responded that it was a business decision, that the project was proposed when oil was $90/barrel and it’s now half that, but that his government had already approved three other pipelines. Raitt accused the government of playing to the interests of countries like Saudi Arabia, and Trudeau shrugged off that suggestion. Raitt then accused him of taking Atlantic Canada for granted with this cancellation. Trudeau countered that they had an Atlantic growth strategy and that it was the previous government that ignored them. Gérard Deltell then took over the condemnation of the loss of Energy East in French, and Trudeau reiterated that conditions have changed, also in French. Deltell then said that Trudeau was responsible for conditions changing, as though Trudeau controls the world price of oil, and Trudeau instead responded about the ways that they have been doing what the market has been asking for, including carbon pricing. Guy Caron was up next, pointing to the recent PBO report on fiscal sustainability, and demanded that healthcare be adequately funded for the provinces. Trudeau touted the investments that they made in mental health and home care. In English, Caron demanded a national strategy for seniors, to which Trudeau listed all of the measures that they have taken. Caron then changed topics to the Phoenix pay system, demanding a refund for it. Trudeau noted that they were working with the public service and the unions to fix the situation, and then there was another round of the same in French.

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Roundup: All abuzz about Netflix

It’s probably not a big surprise that the story for which the most ink (physical or digital, take your pick) was spilled yesterday were the culture policy changes that Mélanie Joly announced, punctuated by the grand announcement that Netflix had committed to spending half a billion dollars over five years on Canadian productions. But in there was also news that there would be no big bailout for the news media in this country, and there would be some funding boosts for the Canada Media Fund, the Canada Music Fund and the Canada Book Fund, and a creative export strategy, along with previously announced reforms of the Copyright Board.

Suffice to say, there’s a fair amount of grumbling from traditional broadcasters that Neflix is essentially getting away with murder, not bound by the same CanCon obligations of traditional broadcasters, nor are other Internet giants like Google and Facebook being asked to contribute to the same content creation funds that traditional media are. And there is some pretty legitimate concerns about this announced Netflix deal because it’s pretty opaque – Netflix will continue to be able to operate as a black box when it comes to their subscriber data, and while Sean Casey went on Power & Politics to insist that the $500 million was new money (given that Netflix had previously told Parliament that they were already spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Canada), it really doesn’t seem like that’s anything new given that previous statement. Netflix also says that the money isn’t coming from the recent rate-hike in Canada, but that’s not washing with a number of people. The Financial Post has a fairly comprehensive look at the announcement here, including the fact that the announcement seems to leave a lot of the heavy lifting into the future, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

I do think it should be incumbent upon us to remember that Netflix has not been a net benefit to the cultural sector in Canada. The late Denis McGrath used to refer to them as a “parasite” on the Canadian broadcast sector because they put no money into the production of shows that they streamed, encouraging the cord-cutting that starved the very platforms who produced those shows that they later streamed of funding. It’s a complex problem, and a handful of Netflix originals aren’t going to be the panacea for the Canadian film and television industry. If anything, it may hasten the decline.

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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: No more gimmicky rules

In her latest installment of her occasional “Dear Process Nerd” column series, Kady O’Malley takes on the subject of heckling, and offers a sympathetic answer about the frustration of MPs who can’t get a word in edgewise given the way in which debates and QP are structured to all but discourage actual debate. And she’s right – that is a very serious problem that we should address. The problem? The solutions that she offered were not solutions.

As is so often the case with people who are looking to reform the system to improve the obvious deficiencies, the instinct is always to implement some new gimmick, and my learned friend is no different in this regard. In this case, O’Malley notes that we should give MPs more time to meaningfully engage with legislation (go on…) but decides that the answer lies in rejigging the daily schedule for un-structured, open-interaction with things like quizzing specific ministers on subjects or Urgent Questions.

And this is the part where I heave a great sigh, because my learned friend as completely missed the mark.

When you identify a problem, you shouldn’t go looking for a new gimmick to try and counterbalance it – you should go looking for the source of the problem and solve it there. In this case, it’s the way in which we started regulating speaking times in Canada so that when we imposed maximum speaking times, we incentivised MPs to use up that whole time. That meant speeches that went up to 40 minutes, then twenty, and the ten minutes allotted for questions and comments wound up being just as rote and scripted more often than not because MPs no longer know how to debate. So why not just tackle that problem instead? Restore the old rules – abolish speaking times and speaking lists, have the Speaker gauge how long MPs should have to speak to a bill or motion based on the number of MPs who want to speak to it, and allow for interruptions for questions in a free-flowing manner, and above all, ban scripts so that MPs will be engaged in the subject matter, talking for probably eight to ten minutes, ensure that there is free-flowing debate throughout, and most of all, it eliminates the impetus to read speeches into the record. Just tacking on new rules and gimmicks has made the situation worse over the years. Strip that away. Get us back to the fundamentals. That will help bring about actual change.

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Roundup: Unexpected PBO problems

As it turns out, there is another problem with the legislation that turns the Parliamentary Budget Officer into a full-fledged independent officer of parliament rather than his current status as being part of the Library of Parliament – it just so happens that they need to request any information from ministers themselves and not from civil servants. And nobody flagged this issue during study of the bill when it was before Parliament. Oops.

The concern from the PBO is that this could automatically politicise the work, as though that wasn’t already happening. After all, the PBO has become the opposition’s favourite cudgel to bash the government with, and shield by which to hid behind in order to insist that the report comes from the “objective, non-partisan” PBO and therefore is sacrosanct. Not to mention, that the creation of the office has meant that MPs have one more person to fob their homework off onto rather than doing it for themselves. After all, math is hard, and they have better things to do. So will the change have any material effect? Hard to say, given that the bureaucracy has been reluctant to share all of the requested information to date, and a government that is happy with the PBO one day can quickly become a government that is unhappy with him the next, and they could start insisting that all information is cabinet confidence. But they can already do that with information being requested by way of the civil service, so perhaps that’s a moot point. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, there have been no efforts to rein in the scope of the PBO’s work, which could become a different sort of problem down the road. Ontario’s PBO-equivalent released a report yesterday that seemed to be a little outside of its mandate, leading to indications that perhaps there are problems brewing.

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Roundup: PBO’s platform peril

Now that the budget implementation bill has passed, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is in the midst of transforming into yet another unaccountable Officer of Parliament that will have a broad mandate and few checks on his actions, given that the government backed down on their attempts to limit the scope of his work. What they didn’t limit was the giving the PBO the mandate to cost election promises by other parties, despite his objections to doing so, and so now his office is being forced to figure out just how they’ll do it. The legislation does make it clear that he’s only to cost individual promises, not their whole campaign, but it’s going to be an enormous amount of work that will be used even more as a cudgel than his work already is, and we can expect an election period being filled with taunts of “See, the PBO says that your plans will cost more than you say and he’s independent,” with the unspoken “Nya, nya!” in there. Oh boy. Anyway, Jennifer Robson has a few more thoughts on the issue.

The bit about a common baseline is possibly important, given that economist Stephen Gordon has been trying to match Liberal election promises to the current budget framework and has found the task to be nigh impossible.

Enforcing common costing baselines may sound like a good idea, but it does make me nervous about campaigns devolving into accounting exercises at the expense of other considerations, including accountability, and that we’ll have repeats of 2008, when we had clear platform commitments shrugged off by reporters going “it’s just so complicated” when a) it wasn’t, and b) it reinforces this “math is hard” narrative that does nobody any favours. But maybe that’s just me.

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Roundup: The difficulty with tracking spending

The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s latest analysis shows that it’s difficult to track budgetary spending commitments because they don’t often line up with the Supplementary Estimates. And yes, this is a problem. The solution is something that the government has already committed to, which is to reform the Estimates process. Right now, it is out of sync with the budget, where the Estimates need to be out before the beginning of the new fiscal year, but there is no set time for the budget to be released, meaning that the allocation of budget dollars happens before Parliament sees the budget. Later allocations to match the budget are supposed to then show up in the Supplementary Estimates, but as the PBO shows in his analysis, that’s hard to track. And even harder to track is whether those Estimates wound up being spent properly because the accounting systems used between the Estimates and the Public Accounts at the end of the fiscal year no longer match up, so tracking those dollars is also near-impossible. This has been an ongoing problem for decades, and the Liberals were elected on a promise to fix this problem. They have started to, but in recent months, the Treasury Board president, Scott Brison, says he has encountered resistance from the civil service when it comes to how they time things, and he’s trying to fix it. So that’s the hope, anyway.

What I hope comes from this exercise, however, is increased pressure on Brison and the government to carry on with reforming the Estimates cycle so that it better matches the budget cycle, and that the Estimates match the Public Accounts at the end of the year so that money can actually be tracked. What I hope doesn’t happen is for this to turn into calls to turn over yet more power and authority for scrutinizing the estimates to the PBO because that’s the whole raison d’etre of MPs, and they should be demanding that it be in a format that they can use and understand.

And while we’re on the subject of the PBO, here’s Kevin Milligan on the proposed amendments to the new PBO legislation, and why he still has concerns (as I do) about creating a massively powerful Officer of Parliament with no oversight or accountability.

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Roundup: Crawling to the finish line

It’s finally here! The end of the interminable Conservative leadership contest, and its byzantine rules and its ongoing bastardization of the Westminster system’s actual method of selecting party leaders that ensures accountability. No, we are due for yet another presidentalizing leader who has been campaigning on policy planks inappropriately (that is the grassroots membership’s job), and one who could very well have very little caucus support and all of the associated problems that come with that.

But before we get to that final vote tabulation, here we got with all of the pre-analysis and last-minute profiles. Éric Grenier traces the path to victory for the various Conservative leadership candidates, Andrew Coyne remarks that the lack of star power meant debates over ideas (err, not really). Kevin O’Leary’s campaign chair, Mike Coates, walks us through what happened during those five months and why O’Leary dropping out was the best for all involved. Susan Delacourt wonders if the Conservatives will emerge from their time with an interim leader having learned any lessons that the Liberals took almost a decade in opposition to learn.

And then there are the last-minute analyses of the various candidates. John Ivison notes Bernier’s capacity to come back from a past of blunders, along with the lack of policy from candidates like Scheer and Raitt, and Chong’s playing the role of Cassandra. Chris Selley takes a look at O’Leary and Leitch and notes that there wasn’t an appetite for a Canadian Trump-like figure, while Anne Kingston wonders if Leitch’s campaign didn’t actually reveal true Canadian values, that rejected her particular brand of messaging.

Meanwhile, at the “convention” itself, the Conservatives have decided to be petulant and make Liberal observers pay for tickets rather than follow tradition and allow a small number in, in exchange for similar rights at Liberal Party conventions. (The NDP, incidentally, still got free admission for their observers, proving that complete dickishness is still alive and well in the post-Harper era.) Here’s a look at Maxime Bernier’s riding, which is not as big-C Conservative as people might think. Bernier’s campaign took on some of Kevin O’Leary’s campaign staff, and it cost them a lot more money because of the rates they were being paid. Andrew MacDougall wonders if the Liberals will deploy attack ads against the new leader right away just like the Conservatives did to them.

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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