Roundup: Site C reluctance and costs

The BC government announced yesterday that they were going to reluctantly go ahead with the Site C dam project, which disappointed a great many people, not the least of which was the provincial NDP government’s Green Party allies (but not, apparently, to the point of withdrawing confidence, because they still have to get their self-interested electoral reform referendum up and running, and they certainly don’t want to jeopardise that). Oh, and true to form, it’ll cost even more than originally anticipated. Because of course it will. And while I can’t speak to some of the issues with some of the First Nations in the area, some of those cost issues were explored, particularly in this analysis, I also found the arguments of Blair King, who deals with contaminated sites for a living, to be particularly instructive on the issue, both in terms of the costs of remediating the work already done on the site, as well as the fact that other alternatives are simply not going to replace what the dam can do, particularly in the issues of night use for electric vehicles and the seasonal disparity of solar generation with usage – and certainly not for the same costs.

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Roundup: Embattled ministers sticking it out

With three cabinet ministers currently “embattled” (to various degrees), Aaron Wherry wondered about the drop-off in actual ministerial resignations, and found the comparison to the days of Brian Mulroney, who was far quicker to accept resignations than is customary these days. Mulroney came to regret this, mind you, but it can’t be denied that the demands for resignations have never left us, and in fact are pretty rote performance by this point. That the Conservatives made their demand for Bill Morneau’s resignation without any real damning evidence as to why it’s necessary has made it seem as unserious as it actually is, making it harder for them in the future to make a legitimate demand.

But with that having been said, I’m going to say that there’s something that Wherry has left out in his analysis, which is the way in which Cabinets are constructed is a different calculation now than it was in Mulroney’s day, and that matters. Back then, the dominant concern was federal construction, so while you had to ensure that you had enough ministers from certain regions, and some token diversity in terms of religious or cultural background, with a woman or two in the mix, it was easier to swap out white men for one another when it came to accepting resignations and replacing them. That’s not really the case right now. Trudeau’s pledge for a gender-balanced cabinet that is also regionally representative as well as diverse in terms of race and ethnicity means that there are far fewer options for replacing ministers when it comes time to either accepting resignations, or swapping them out for fresh blood. What that ends up doing is creating an incentive for a prime minister to stick by an “embattled” minister (though I’m not sure just how serious any of the allegations against any of the current ministers really is – the attacks against Morneau are largely baseless, while Lebouthillier has done her due diligence with regard to the AG’s report and has technically been correct in what she’s said regarding the disability tax credit; Hehr, meanwhile, has been chagrinned but I’m not sure there is a cardinal sin here in the grand scheme of things). Sure, there will be a few tough days in the media, but eventually, when there turns out to be nothing to what is being said, the storm passes. It passed with Harjit Sajjan and Maryam Monsef (who was given a promotion for sticking with the flaming bag of dog excrement that was the electoral reform file), and I’m pretty sure it’ll pass for the current three. Until Parliament itself is more diverse than it is now, the demands for a representative Cabinet means that there are fewer options available for a Prime Minister to accept a resignation. What it does mean, however, is that they need to get a bit better around communications and managing the issues that do come up, but also seems to be a recurring theme with this government.

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Roundup: Romanado’s version

A little over 24 hours after the allegations between Liberal MP Sherry Romanado and Conservative MP James Bezan ricocheted around the Hill, CTV got an exclusive interview with Romanado, and it’s eye-opening in how the accounts differ, particularly around the apology itself. In particular, Romanado disputes that Bezan had made attempts to apologize earlier – something she would have welcomed – and noted that she was blindsided by his public apology in the Commons on Monday morning considering that she was in her office when it happened, and only later made her statement to try to correct what she felt was wrong information.

The biggest takeaway from the interview (which I would encourage you to watch, despite the fact that it’s 20 minutes long) is the fact that in her estimation, Bezan broke the confidentiality of the mediation process by putting out his statement on Monday afternoon – something she respected up until that point, which is partially why she had been blindsided. She also notes that while others are accusing her of making a partisan issue out of it, she had plenty of opportunity to do so beforehand while she respected the confidentiality of the grievance process, and her “reward” for this affair is to be inundated with trolls over social media who have been replete with lewd suggestions about threesomes. As well, other MPs have come to her to recount their own experiences that they won’t come forward with.

There were a few other points of note in the interview – that what people will say was a bad joke felt to her like she was being undermined in front of stakeholders and treated like a sexual object, which made her job as parliamentary secretary harder to do. As well, she has been asked directly by young women who want to get involved in politics if they will be sexually harassed on the Hill, and she has told them unfortunately yes. There need to be conversations about what goes on and how to prevent it, but as this experience shows, it certainly appears that Bezan may have been engaging in some damage control that further sought to undermine Romanado, which is sadly the kind of cynical manoeuvres that happen here far too often.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt calls out those who would use sexual harassment allegations for political purposes, going back to the initial incident of those two Liberal MPs booted from caucus, while Robyn Urback argues that a bad joke is not really the same as the same kinds of allegations of sexual harassment that other women are coming forward about.

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Senate QP: Chagger skirts some issues

While the official apology to LGBT Canadians carried on in the House of Commons, the Senate moved onto its regularly scheduled ministerial Question Period, with special guest star Bardish Chagger in her role as minister of small business and tourism. That didn’t quite matter to the Conservative leader, Senator Smith, who led off on the ongoing issue of the process to name a new Ethics Commissioner, which Chagger is in charge of, and his concerns with news that four members of the PMO had recused themselves from the process because they were on the PM’s vacation to the Bahamas over Christmas. Chagger noted that she was supposed to be here in her role as minister of small business and tourism, but that being said, she responded that the was an open, transparent, merit-based process in place. When Smith pressed, noting that Chagger had defended the PM on his vacation while she was in charge of this process, Chagger reiterated that there was an open, transparent, merit-based process.

Senator McIntyre asked about the PBO report on the proposed tax changes, and whether she knew in advance what it said. Chagger noted that she read the report at the same time as others, and that the intent of the changes was to close loopholes on places where they are used for high-earners evading taxes but not to punish small businesses, which are the backbone of the economy.

Senator Day asked a question in relation to Chagger’s role as House Leader, and raised the omnibus motion that Chagger moved in June that in part rejected Senate amendments to the budget bill. Day demanded to know what “rights and privileges” the amendments would have violated, and why they would have been passed without debate. Chagger said that they have the utmost respect for the Senate, but didn’t really defend her motion or her actions. Day pressed on the rights and privileges, given there was no debate that spelled out what they were, but Chagger merely said that she would ensure that the Senate’s views were heard.

Senator Cormier asked about the Business Development Bank of Canada, and the needs of the arts and culture sector. Chagger said that she has been working with BDC on several initiatives, and that a whole-of-government approach was being taken, but she was pushing for more recognition of the arts sector.

Senator Lankin asked about taxes on campgrounds and the lack of sufficient answers on the matter to date. Chagger said that CRA was dealing with those cases on a case-by-case basis, and she had asked to be kept informed on the progress.

Senator Batters asked about the lack of details on retroactive tax changes to passive investments (which is not actually right — passive income changes were to be grandfather existing investments). Chagger respectfully disagreed with Batters on her characterization, noted the 73 percent tax rate referred to was not common, and then quoted the PBO report that said that 97 percent of businesses would not be affected.

Senator Greene Raine asked about a programme for tourism packages, which was had their GST rebate application later than expected and less than expected. Chagger said that she would follow up with her on the issue.

Senator Omidvar talked about entrepreneurship among immigrants, and some of the difficulty that they have with navigating the system. Chagger highlighted the accelerated growth service that caters to the needs of entrepreneurs that provides help to get through the hurdles.

Senator McPhedran asked about a fund for women entrepreneurs in the tech sector, particularly for Indigenous women. Chagger agreed that were not doing enough in that sector and they were trying to do better, and they were seeing returns on that fund, and curiously, tied it into the apology to persecuted LGBT Canadians taking place in the Commons, and the loss of potential that took place then and that she doesn’t want to keep taking place now.

Senator Oh asked about Canada-China tourism, and the ability to quickly process visa applications. Chagger said that she was happy to see the numbers from China grow, and gave some praise for the tourism industry before getting around to the visas, and noted the seven new visa centres which were opened and are “working well.”

Overall, it was a fairly mixed bag. On the one hand, Chagger could absolutely give good answers to some questions, and without the same 35-second constraints in the Commons, was able to actually give reasonable answers instead of sound-bites. This having been said, she did have a tendency to dissemble at times, but not quite as much as some of her colleagues, and generally, she would return to the question being posed. But when pressed on one of the most fundamental issues, being Senator Day’s inquiry into just what happened in June with the amendments to the budget bill (during which, I will remind you, Senator Harder compromised his own position in his leading the response from the Senate), and the somewhat alarming manner in which Chagger made her response in the Commons at the time, she remained mute. While it wasn’t too surprising, it was certainly disappointing, especially as it points to the ways in which this government continues to handle the independent Senate that they have promoted.

Sartorially speaking, style citations go out to Senator Lillian Eva Dyck for a black leather jacket with embroidery, a white blouse with a lace collar and a black skirt with a Indigenous floral pattern, as well as to Senator René Cormier for a tailored dark grey suit with a white shirt and patterned tie. Style citations go out to Senator David Richards for a baggy black jacket, taupe slacks, white shirt and black striped tie, and to Senator Pierrette Ringuette for a tan long sweater over a black, white and red patterned dress, with red tights.

QP: No one is above the law

With the PM off in PEI to deliver a speech and then off to Newfoundland to do a bit of by-election campaigning, Andrew Scheer opted not to show up either. That meant that it was up to Lisa Raitt to lead off, raising the new headlines around Stephen Bronfman, and demanded to know what assurances the PM had received from him. In response, Diane Lebouthillier gave her usual assurances that they are investigating tax evasion and charges were upcoming. When Raitt demanded to know if Bronfman was under investigation — as though the minister could actually answer that — and Lebouthillier reminded her that the previous government, of which Raitt was a member, cut investigations. Raitt then disingenuously suggested that the PM interfered in an investigation — wholly falsely — and Lebouthillier reiterated her assurances. Gérard Deltell got up to repeat the questions in French, to which Lebouthillier reminded him that she can’t comment on any investigation under the law and that they knew that. After another round of the same, Guy Caron got up to also carry on the Bronfman questions, and Lebouthillier dutifully repeated her points about investigations. Caron repeated in English, and Lebouthillier sharply noted that no one was above the law, and nobody was interfering with any investigation. Matthew Dubé was up next to ask about SS7 vulnerabilities with Canadian mobile phones, to which Ralph Goodale said that this was a CSE responsibility, that they work with telecom companies, and if they needed more of a push, they would get it. Dubé demanded legislative updates to protect Canadians’ privacy, and Goodale assured him that a cyber-review was underway and at least three initiatives would be tabled in the coming weeks.

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Roundup: Uncritical about the playwright’s lament

Toronto playwright Michael Healy apparently took to the Twitter Machine to plead with the government to ditch their talking points and talk like human beings. Aaron Wherry in turn wrote this up as wondering why politicians don’t talk like they’re on the West Wing, but didn’t actually look at the reasons why message control has taken hold – never mind that nobody actually talks like they’re in an Aaron Sorkin production (because honestly, the sanctimony alone…) But in all honesty, it would have been a useful exercise to see why some of this has become entrenched.

For one, part of the problem is the format of Question Period in the Commons, where the strict 35-second clock makes reasonable answers all-but impossible in most cases. I’ve had staffers tell me that they have to prepare scripts, not because their ministers don’t know the subject matter, but because they need to keep it within those 35 seconds and that’s the easiest way. I can’t say that I’m necessarily sold on that – or too sympathetic – but I can see why the temptation is there.

Part of the problem is the way in which branding has taken hold of politics to such a degree that there is a perceived need to drill slogans into people’s brains – things like “Strong, Stable Conservative Majority™,” or “The Middle Class and Those Looking to Join It™.” One of my pet peeves is “The Environment and The Economy Go Together™” because I know that the minister who keeps saying that is capable of answering questions in a reasonable manner and could do so if she stopped delivering that line, but that’s the message that she wants to drive home. Even though we get it.

And part of the problem is the way that We The Media treat frankness – we punish them for it. Witness what happened two weeks ago when Carla Qualtrough went on CTV’s Question Period, and Evan Solomon picked the $1 billion figure for a possible Phoenix price tag out of thin air, and when Qualtrough said, frankly, that she didn’t know but she couldn’t rule it out, suddenly CTV ran with the “billion dollar” headline, and absolutely everyone else followed suit. It’s now stuck to the Phoenix issue in most headlines, never mind that it wasn’t what she actually said, but her moment of frankness is now being treated as some confession that we will tar the issue with. We The Media have been repeating the mendacious and disingenuous framing devices around the interminable Morneau Shepell questions uncritically – and in some cases, fuelling them in a complete absence of fact of context *cough*Globe and Mail*cough* and anything that the ministers say becomes a trap.

So why, then, would any minister want to be frank in their answers, if we’re just going to punish them for it? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the self-awareness to process this – that we are part of the problem that drives this issue to turn all government messages into pabulum. We do this to ourselves. Let’s think about that.

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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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