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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Senate QP: Rapid-fire Sohi

Fresh from a vote in the House of Commons, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi headed over the the Senate for their own Question Period. Senator Smith led off for the Conservatives, asking him how the government is determining priorities for their infrastructure programme. Sohi acknowledged that when they formed government, there was a lack of data on the infrastructure needs around the country, which is why they put their initial focus on repairing existing infrastructure while they got the longer-term plan underway. Smith asked when they anticipated getting their data out to Canadians, and Sohi said that once the budget implementation act was approved, he would sit down with provinces to work with their reporting to match federal standards, given that it was all a series of bilateral agreements.

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QP: Bitching about Broadway

While it was attempting to snow outside in Ottawa, and while the business of the day in the Chamber was an unconstitutional Supply Day motion, it was a pretty grim day in the capital. When Question Period came about, Rona Ambrose led off, mentioning the flooding in Quebec and elsewhere, and asked for an update on the assistance that the government was providing. Justin Trudeau noted that their thoughts are with those affected, and that to date, 1,650 troops have been deployed to assist. Ambrose then returned to the issue of Harjit Sajjan and the lack of explanation for his embellishment. Trudeau noted that he has full confidence in Sajjan, and that he was proud of Sajjan’s work, then got a dig in about Conservative under-funding that was a challenge for him. Ambrose ladled on some fairly smarmy sanctimony about how she was sure the Minister would never embellish while he was in uniform, and Trudeau brushed this concern off. Ambrose switched topics — finally — and brought up the Infrastructure Bank and the connection to companies like Blackrock. Trudeau noted previous underinvestment in infrastructure, and that they were going to lead to good jobs with their plans. Ambrose railed that there were obvious conflicts of interests with the Infrastructure Bank, but Trudeau stuck to his good news talking points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, giving a slow-talking, serious-sounding question about calling an inquiry into Afghan detainees. Trudeau noted that six separate inquiries had been conducted and the NDP ducked out on one of them. Mulcair switched to French to ask again, and got much the same answer. Mulcair switched to the flooding, and Trudeau noted that he went to sites to help fill sandbags. Mulcair demanded federal support, and Trudeau noted that they already had it.

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QP: Questionable claims about Sajjan

For Star Wars Day (“May the 4th be with you”), it was unfortunate that the prime minister was absent, as he was busy meeting his Irish counterpart in Montreal.

Rona Ambrose led off, reading some sanctimonious disappointment in the defence minister. Harjit Sajjan noted that he apologies, and launched into a sales pitch for his forthcoming defence review.

Ambrose railed that Sajjan behaved like a politician — because that’s what he is — but Sajjan stuck to assurances that he was looking after the troops. Ambrose turned to tax benefits for those serving in Kuwait, and Sajjan said that they would ensure that they would have the necessary benefits owed to them and they were ensuring fair compensation rules were in place. Ambrose accused him of misleading the House on the issue, and Sajjan spoke about fixing the immediate problem, and there was a difference between tax-free benefits and hardship allowance. Ambrose then turned to defence funding, and demanded Sajjan’s resignation. Sajjan said they were putting the Canadian Forces onto a sustainable footing. Ambrose cherry-picked past defence spending of the previous government (ignoring that many of those procurements, like the helicopters, were badly bungled), and Sajjan expounded upon the non-partisan advice they got on the defence file and that they were moving ahead to recapitalise the Forces.

Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, but when he talked about the government “polishing a turd” of political fundraising, the Speaker was unamused and went to the next name on the list.

That was Alexandre Boulerice who railed about finalising rules, and Karina Gould assured him they were tabling rules for more transparency. Boulerice then railed about handcuffing the PBO, and Bardish Chagger said they were making him more independent but were open to amendments. Cullen was back up to ask the same in English, and Chagger repeated her answer.

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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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QP: Coming at Sajjan on two fronts

While a gas leak evacuated buildings a couple of blocks from the Hill, QP got underway undaunted. Rona Ambrose led off, immediately boarding the sanctimony train with regards to the Harjit Sajjan apology, and Justin Trudeau reiterated that he continued to have full confidence in his Minister. Ambrose demanded Sajjan’s ouster, and Trudeau reiterated that he was proud of Sajjan, and listed numerous accomplishments. Ambrose demanded to know if Trudeau knew of Sajjan saying this in 2015, but Trudeau got around it. Ambrose ladled on some more sanctimony before demanding his ouster yet again, but Trudeau praised Sajjan’s contributions again. Ambrose then accused the government of not supporting the military, but Trudeau was unmoved. Thomas Mulcair was up next, decrying that there was no inquiry into the Afghan detainees issue. Trudeau said that Sajjan spoke with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner and she closed the file. Mulcair reiterated, saying that it wasn’t the question, but Trudeau repeated that the file was closed. Mulcair tried to sort out whether Sajjan knew nothing on that file or if he was an architect of Op Medusa, and Trudeau reiterated praise for Sajjan. Mulcair then moved onto the Parliamentary Budget Officer, accusing Trudeau of attacking him, and Trudeau disputed that, insisted they gave him more resources and more independence.

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Roundup: Face it, strategic voting is a sham

With BC now in a provincial general election, the messages about “strategic voting” are again plaguing the social media channels. Brenda Fine, aka @moebius_strip, wrote a response to this constant complaints, and pointed out the huge folly in the various “strategies” being proposed, in part because they rely on dubious polling practices and because the groups organizing these “strategic voting” sites often have their own agendas (usually NDP partisans from my own observations) and will urge people to vote in ways that were wildly against the best chances for a non-Conservative (per the 2015 federal election), which in many cases was Liberal by a landslide. So yes, strategic voting is generally a foolhardy practice that has no actual basis is reality, but time after time, despite it being proven to be wrong, people continue to insist on it. Because this time, it’ll work for sure!

Part of what bugs me about the constant lamentations about strategic voting is that they are predicated on this notion that you should always be able to vote for ice cream with sprinkles in every election and get that result, even when ice cream with sprinkles is not always what’s on offer. Voting is about making a decision, and sometimes, it’s not an easy choice and voters are forced to put on their big boy/girl pants and make a tough decision given a bunch of unsavoury choices. Sure, it sucks, but it’s called being an adult in a democratic society, and you have a responsibility to make tough calls. And then, once you’ve made that tough call, you can look at what you did to contribute toward ensuring that there was a better choice on that ballot, whether it was participating in a nomination race to get better candidates’ names put forward, or joining a party to ensure that better policies were on offer coming from the grassroots membership. Of course, 98 percent of the population did nothing to ensure that there were better choices on that ballot, and then complain that they have to make an unsavoury choice. Aww, muffin. Democracy’s not a spectator sport where you get to just cast a ballot every four years if you’re not too busy. It means you actually have to participate if you want better outcomes. (And here’s a primer to show you that it’s actually not that difficult to do that and get involved).

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