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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Roundup: Not all omnibus bills are abusive

As if we needed another excuse for the opposition to blow their collective gaskets, the Liberal budget implementation bill clocks in at around 300 pages, and touches on several different Acts. In other words, it’s an omnibus bill.

“Oh!” They cry. “You promised you wouldn’t use them.”

Err, they promised not to abuse them, and in fact were careful in their language so as to not promise that they would never be used, because anyone who knows a thing or two about the legislative process knows that sometimes omnibus bills are necessary, particularly when it comes to housekeeping bills that clean up language across several acts, for example. What separates a proper omnibus bills from abusive ones are the fact that they are around a common theme, and can be studied by a single committee. This is where the Harper bills failed the test – while they claimed that they were under a single theme (i.e. implementing programmes mentioned in the budget), they touched on all manner of subjects that were not all under the purview of the finance committee, and this is really the key. When they put in sections that rewrote the entire environmental assessment legislation – under the dubious rubric of doing it for the sake of stimulating resource projects and thereby the economy, this was not something that the finance committee could necessarily study, and certainly not when the hundreds of pages and tight time-allocated timelines meant no time to do proper study of the various and sundry provisions. That is abusive.

From everything I’ve seen of this new budget implementation bill, it certainly looks like everything is all related to fiscal matters and would be under the purview of the finance committee to study. Yes, it’s 300 pages, which shouldn’t be the determining factor, and this is more about the opposition torqueing the issue in order to make it look like the government was breaking a promise when in fact they’re not included the kitchen sink into the bills in order to bully them through with as little scrutiny as possible.

What disturbs me more is the fact that like prorogation, “omnibus” is becoming a dirty word because the previous government took it upon themselves to abuse the practice, while my media colleagues haven’t done enough to disabuse the notion that just because a practice has been abused that it’s not actually illegitimate in and of itself. Prorogation is a routine practice for breaking up a legislative session and hitting the reset button in terms of plans and priorities, while omnibus bills have their uses (as we’ve already established). Just because Stephen Harper abused them to his own ends – which is party didn’t seem to be railing about as they are with this current omnibus bill – it doesn’t mean they’re all bad. This shouldn’t be rocket science, and yet, civic illiteracy is rapidly determining the narrative.

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QP: Proto-PMQs, take two

Question Period was late today, due to Malala Yousafzai’s address to parliament, and was the only item on the Order Paper for the day. Meanwhile, not all leaders bothered to show up either. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting new taxes and the plan to increase user fees in the budget bill. Justin Trudeau insisted that they were proud of their choices and the ways they are helping the middle class. Ambrose spun the question as taxing time-off, and Trudeau responded by praising their decision to offer free passes to national parks this year. Ambrose spun it about camping — as those fees are going up — but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose then asked whether the government planned to pass her bill on sexual assault training for judges, and Trudeau noted his support for survivors, but he also respects Parliament and the work of committees, and he looked forward to those discussions. Ambrose pressed, and Trudeau noted that it was important that they appointed more women to the bench, which they were doing. Alexandre Boulerice led off for the Liberals, railing about the omnibus nature of the budget implementation bill. Trudeau insisted that it was not an abuse of omnibus legislation, all items were included in the budget. Nathan Cullen repeated the question in English, got much the same response, then Cullen railed about the provisions around the PBO. Trudeau noted that it would make him a full Officer of Parliament with greater independence. Boulerice repeated it in French, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: A ham-fisted trap for the Senate

While Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” Senator Peter Harder continues his tour of sympathetic media (the latest being the CBC), crying about how the Conservatives are holding government legislation “hostage” and how he needs to have the rules of the Senate changed, he and his team have been doing everything they can to destroy what collegiality exists with the Senate through ham-fisted procedural moves of their own.

The bill in question is C-4, which is the stated repeal of anti-union bills passed by the Conservatives in the previous parliament, and naturally they would be putting up a fight, tooth-and-nail, to keep their old legislation. Not surprising, but also a doomed fight. The bill was on track to pass the Senate this week, when Harder’s deputy, Senator Bellemare, announced that they would be calling a vote on it before Thursday, claiming that they had the support of all senators to do so, when in fact they didn’t. Reminder: the bill was on track to pass, as the Conservatives had exhausted their abilities to delay it. By pulling this manoeuvre, Bellemare basically sabotaged the working relationship between the caucuses in order to maybe shave a day or two from the bill. Maybe. Rather than letting it go through, she (and by extension Harder) turn it into a fight over procedure and sour feelings. Why? So that they can turn around and whine some more to the media that the political caucuses in the Senate are not working with them and are being obstructionist, therefore “proving” that they need these proposed rule changes that Harder wants. Harder, meanwhile, gets to look like he’s the victim and just trying to be reasonable when he’s the one who hasn’t been negotiating with the other caucuses this whole time.

What gets me is just how obvious he’s being about it. Well, obvious to someone who knows what’s going on in the Senate, but most people don’t, and he’s keen to exploit the fact that the general public – and indeed most journalists – aren’t paying attention, and he can use that to his advantage. None of their actions make sense if they actually wanted a working relationship with other senators and to try and get those bills they’re suddenly so concerned with (despite the fact that they have done nothing so far to try and move them along), which makes it all the plainer to see that this latest effort has nothing to do with trying to get bills passed in the Senate, and more to do with changing the rules in order to advantage his position.

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Roundup: Stop coveting the CBO

Given the insanity taking place within the Trumpocalypse with the current debate over reforming their health insurance legislation, the Congressional Budget Office’s figures have been at the centre of the debate. Chris Selley penned a column yesterday to praise this island of sanity with the maelstrom, and wonders what a better funded Parliamentary Budget Officer could do in Canada.

To this, I must say nope. Nope, nope, nope.


Why? Because we are already lousy with unaccountable officers of parliament who are usurping the role that MPs are supposed to be playing. As it stands, MPs have already started been fobbing their homework off onto the PBO, and then hiding behind his independent analysis and then using it as their cudgel. It is driven by the impulse that they don’t think they can win the debate on the issues, so they would rather have those officers win it for them, and the PBO is certainly no exception.

But independent officers are not infallible. That F-35 cost figures that Selley cites? While Kevin Page’s figures proved to be in the ballpark, his methodology was haphazard and any defence analyst you asked would tell you as much. And we’ve seen how the Auditor General’s report on the Senate was deeply flawed that both former Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie and the lawyer that the Senate hired to review the report could scarcely believe it. And of course We The Media eat it up as well, because it’s “independent” and therefore believable, even when it may not actually be right, and the constant deference to these agents is actually harming democracy.

Yes, we have problems with government giving figures that are useable, and the previous government was masterful at changing the accounting rules constantly to keep everyone, PBO included, from trying to figure them out. That’s a problem, but it’s not one that we should expect the PBO to solve. Rather, MPs from all parties should be demanding clear figures, and should use their powers to compel disclosure, whether it’s on committees or Order Paper questions. The problem is that not enough MPs bother to do it, in part because they don’t actually know that their primary job is to hold the government (meaning Cabinet) to account. And simply excusing their ignorance and appointing an independent officer to do it for them doesn’t fix the problem – it exacerbates it.

Also, quit looking at Washington and thinking that we can import their institutions and practices into our system. I know the CBO was the thought when the PBO was created, but our systems are different, and you can’t just graft a similar model on. Stop trying. We have our own system and processes that we should be focusing on improving, and that starts with educating ourselves about our own processes.

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Roundup: Estimates still a mess

The Main Estimates were released yesterday in advance of the budget, and if you don’t know why this is a bad thing that keeps happening, then you need a better understanding of why this is such a big deal in our parliamentary system. The Estimates are the way in which parliament authorizes the government to spend money, and they should be there for MPs to scrutinize before the money goes out the door. The problem is that we’ve divorced the estimates from the budget cycle, which means that they are now documents that reflect the status quo of the previous year rather than any new measures, and we have to wait for the Supplementary Estimates to be tabled later in the year. With the Main Estimates reduced to a formality, it’s reduced any study of the Supplementary Estimates to a kind of shrug and quick vote to pass, leaving the Senate to do any actual scrutiny, which is a problem. Why? It’s the job of MPs to hold government to account by controlling the public purse – hence the Estimates – and if they can’t do that, they can’t do their jobs. To make this worse, successive governments have allowed the accounting of the Estimates to become virtually unreadable, and when the Public Accounts are released a year later – which shows how that money was spent – they’re reported in a different accounting system, so you can’t really track if money was properly spent or not. It’s an abomination to how parliament is supposed to work (and yes, this is one of those things I talk about in The Unbroken Machine).

To their credit, the Liberals have vowed to fix this, and Scott Brison seems to be at least showing a bit of contrition and frustration that fixing this is taking so long. Part of this is bureaucratic, with departments not speeding up their processes. Part of this is political, where the Commons hasn’t amended the Standing Orders to allow the Estimates to be tabled by May 1st instead of March 1st so that it can follow the budget. But seriously – this is actually the most important job of MPs, and they have shown a complete disregard for this for years now. Their most fundamental duty is to control the public purse and the Estimates are the heart of that process, and they can’t be arsed to take them seriously. Watching them speed through Estimates votes without proper scrutiny happens more often than not, and we saw last year a case where they voted through a flawed version of the bill that the Senate caught and had to send back. It’s a disgrace, and while I applaud Brison for trying to make changes, the fact that the rest of the Commons can’t get on board is utterly shameful.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has a good look at the country’s fiscal picture in the lead up to the budget, while Paul Wells gets more hints about the budget, which looks to be a lot more wait-and-see given the unfolding Trumpocalypse south of the border.

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Roundup: For fear of extremists rising

In damage control mode, the Liberals have sent out senior sources to talk about why they pulled the plug on electoral reform, and have brought up the relatively new talking point about concerns for the rise of extremist parties, while cabinet was opposed to a referendum (not surprisingly given the referenda we’ve seen globally lately) and to a PR system in general. I say relatively new talking point because it was raised as part of the MyDemocracy survey, but as Paul Wells stated on Power & Politics last night, for a government that purports to be eloquent, they never made the case. I also suspect there was the added problem that in making it known that he was open to being convinced, Justin Trudeau allowed Nathan Cullen and others to steal the narrative away from him, which is a big reason why the Liberals completely lost the plot on that file.

Colby Cosh goes through the promise and given the choice as to whether Trudeau was being sleazy or stupid in making that promise, Cosh goes on the side of stupid – for which I would agree – and notes that a retreat was the best he could hope for rather than some truly unsavoury outcomes, particularly with regard to a referendum or a more purely proportional system. And here we get back to the rise of extremist parties.

Canada is not immune to this rabid and toxic populism that is going around globally, and we’ve seen examples of it manifesting in this country, from the election of Rob Ford, to some of the identity politics being attempted in previous elections both federally and provincially. Just because it has been relatively contained and not entirely successful doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in the future, particularly with its proponents feeling emboldened by what’s happening south of the border. And while Nathan Cullen insists that the rise of alt-right parties is “a load of crap,” he is blinkered by this notion, primarily coming from the left-wing, that a PR system would incentivise all of these left-wing and progressive parties that would somehow always form nice coalition governments. Right now we’re seeing something very different playing out in Europe, with all of their myriad of PR systems producing growing hard-right parties on the verge of winning power in several countries. Trudeau has every right to be concerned about that in Canada, and we have demonstrated proof that our current system has blunted their growth because they can’t command enough broad-based support to dominate our big-tent brokerage parties. That’s not a bad thing.

Oh, PR proponents claim. We’ll just raise thresholds so that these parties can’t get seats! But that’s just as problematic because if the thresholds are too low – say below three percent – you’re likely to cut off the Greens and the Bloc, for which they would cry bloody murder. (Their self-interested insistence that more people would vote for them if they knew they were guaranteed PR seats doesn’t help their case). It’s also another way of saying that you want to game the system to produce party configurations that you like, which again is self-interested, and doesn’t make the case for how it makes the system better.

In related news, Paul Wells looks at Karina Gould’s new mandate of cyber-security for our electoral system now that electoral reform is out of the question, and no, it’s not a trivial matter even if we don’t use any kind of electronic ballots in this country. Both Elections Canada and the various parties all have databases, and the party databases most especially are vulnerable, in part because they aren’t subject to any federal legislation which deals with privacy or information security, and that could prove to be a problem in the future.

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Roundup: The measure of a political promise

There’s been a lot of hay made, ink spilled and electrons converted into pixels over the last 36 hours or so about the value of political promises, and how terrible it is when politicians break them. It makes people so cynical, and it’s no wonder that people hate politicians, and so on. We had Liberal MPs Nate Erskine-Smith and Adam Vaughan prostrating themselves about how sorry they are that the promise was broken, voter reform groups wailing about how terribly they’ve been betrayed, and columnists pontificated on broken promises (though do read Selley’s piece because he offers some great advice, not the least of which is telling PR advocates to tone down the crazy. Because seriously).

But in the midst of this, we had Conservative leadership candidates laying out a bunch of promises of what they would do if they a) won the leadership, and b) won the next general election, and some of those promises were hilariously terrible. For example, Maxime Bernier thinks it’s cool to freeze equalization payments so that the federal government can tell provinces how they should be managing their own fiscal houses, or Andrew Scheer saying that he would enshrine property rights by using a novel approach to amending the constitution through the back door, as though the Supreme Court of Canada would actually let that pass.

And while everyone was tearing their hair out over Trudeau’s “betrayal” and “lies,” what were these two other, equally implausible promises as Trudeau’s on electoral reform, met with? A few pundits tweeted “good luck with that” to Scheer. And that was about it. So forgive me while I try to calibrate my outrage meter on political promises here, as to which ones we should take seriously and which ones we know are bad or wholly improbable but can safely laugh off.

To be clear – I’m not looking to give Trudeau a free pass on this one, and I’ve written elsewhere that I think he needs to own up to the fact that it was a bad promise made when he was a third-place party who were blue-skying a number of things. And I think that it should give parties and candidates pause so as to caution them against being overly ambitious in what they promise (preferably, though, without draining all ambition out of politics). But come on. Let’s have a sense of proportion to what just happened here.

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Roundup: Losing crucial regional perspectives

As the hollowing out of the Press Gallery continues, we lost a fairly unique voice yesterday, being Peter O’Neil, who was writing for the Vancouver Sun. While he is but yet one more journalist who has been let go in this period of bloodletting, his was a fairly unique position of being the only “regional” voice left in a major chain paper. Yes, we still have the Winnipeg Free Press and the Halifax Chronicle Herald sending journalists to the Hill rather than just buying wire copy (which they still do, mind you), but those independent papers, and that does make a difference.

Once upon a time, each local paper for the major chains sent someone to Ottawa to cover stories here from the local perspective rather than rely solely on national reporters to feed stories to them. It allowed for local concerns to be brought to MPs here, and for the MPs to better engage with their local papers from Ottawa – especially as they had someone who knew their home ridings here to keep them honest. That’s all gone now. And part of why this is a problem is that there has been a proven correlation between the loss of regional reporters in the Press Gallery and a decline voter turnout in those communities where they suffered that loss. (There are academic studies on this, but my GoogleFu is failing me on this one, but yes, this was a subject frequently discussed during my master’s programme). And now, with even fewer national reporters there to do the daily reporting plus trying to get any kind of perspective, we no longer have reporters doing the same kinds of accountability on MPs themselves rather than just of the government. Peter was the last of the regional voices from the big chains, and because Vancouver has a particular unique political culture of its own, that was an important perspective to have. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why he wound up writing the biography of former Senator Gerry St. Germain – because St. Germain knew that O’Neil knew West Coast politics, he could trust him enough to tell his story. That’s not an insignificant thing in a country with big regional differences like Canada has. And this becomes a growing problem as we lose more and more journalists and positions here in Ottawa, which we need to figure out how to reverse, one way or another, before things deteriorate to the point of no return.

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Roundup: No, Monsef was not demoted

So, cabinet shuffle, and while everyone keeps saying this is somehow Trump-focused, I’m not sure what labour, status of women, or democratic institutions has to do with Trump. There will be all manner of hot takes, and yes, you’ll get mine too. It was striking in that just barely over a year into the new government, two of the most senior hands have not only been bounced from cabinet, but from parliament as a whole – John McCallum headed to China as our new ambassador, and Stéphane Dion to parts unknown in what is likely to be a diplomatic posting of some variety, but what we’re not quite sure just yet. In a government that has very few experienced hands, this is something that does give me some pause. MaryAnn Mihychuk’s ouster, however, was not a great surprise given the stuff that came out when she had a number of duties taken away from her portfolio, particularly around her attitude and her ambition to be a regional political minister in a cabinet that has largely eschewed them. Chrystia Freeland to foreign affairs is not a surprise (making her the first Liberal woman foreign affairs minister in the country’s history – previous ones had been Conservatives), Patty Hajdu to labour seems a natural next step for the job she has been doing, and François-Philippe Champagne to trade is ambitious but he proved himself as Bill Morneau’s parliamentary secretary over the past year. Another first in Cabinet is Ahmed Hussen to immigration, who is Somali-born (and while some have said he’s the first Black cabinet minister, that would actually be Lincoln Alexander).

And then there’s Maryam Monsef. She’s off to Status of Women, which people keep insisting is a demotion, but I have a hard time accepting that notion. She carried a file that is the equivalent of a flaming bag of excrement and smiled all the way through. Sure, she’s no longer the person to finish trying to smother that file as elegantly as possible (so good luck with that, Karina Gould), but a demotion would have been getting the Mihychuk treatment. Status of Women is not a demotion. People went on TV scratching their heads about what challenges are in that department, apparently having not paid attention to the big files in that department, including sorting pay equity, ensuring that all government departments actually implement gender-based analysis, and that tiny little file about the plan to combat gender-based violence. You know, no challenges at all. Plus, she’s gone from a make-work portfolio that didn’t have an actual department – just a handful of PCO staffers to support her – to an actual line-department. It’s not a demotion. And did I mention good luck to Gould because yeah, now she gets to try to stick handle trying to find a way to kill the electoral reform election promise as gracefully as possible (despite Kady O’Malley’s belief that the PM thinks that all hope is not yet lost). Because seriously – this is a file that needs to be put out of its misery before it can cause actual damage to our democratic system.

Meanwhile, if you want hot takes on the cabinet shuffle, there are plenty here from Michael Den Tandt on Freeland, Andrew Potter on Dion, Susan Delacourt susses out the dynamics, while Paul Wells adds both some global perspective and insight into what it says about Trudeau.

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