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: Staffers defend Canadian presidentialism

Andrew Coyne’s column on reverting to a system of caucus selection of party leaders got a lot of pushback over the Twitter Machine on Saturday, and curiously, those most in favour of retaining our current bastardized system of membership-selection were those who currently or formerly worked in the PMO (as well as a couple of current leadership candidates who don’t currently have seats in the House of Commons, which isn’t surprising seeing as they’d be excluded from such an exercise and well, they have egos to stroke given their current leadership ambitions).

And this presidentialization creep is what really gets under my skin, because it’s those who benefit from unearned power – the people in the PMO (less kids in short pants these days than they were under the previous government) who are the most ardent defenders of the system, and using this faux democratic mandate of the 150,000 “supporters” of the party as justification. What none of them bring up is the fact that the PM is unaccountable to those members in any real sense, and certainly unaccountable to the caucus he leads, and that’s a very big problem. And no, a system like that proposed in Democratizing the Constitution of membership selection/caucus removal would never work in practice because unless the method of selection matches the method of removal, there is a legitimacy problem, not to mention this is what happened with both Greg Selinger in Manitoba and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and look at where both of them are today. It’s not pretty, and it’s bad for our Westminster system. Caucus selection is really the system we need to revert to if we want accountable leaders and empowered MPs who aren’t being cowed by centralized leaders and their staffers, and we won’t get that now, especially if those staffers are all over the Twitter Machine trying to defend their turf.

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Roundup: A bit of NDP Kremlinology

On New Year’s Day, the leader of the provincial NDP in New Brunswick resigned and quit the party altogether, citing party infighting, and more curiously, took a few swipes at the federal party along the way.

Why is this interesting? Because the federal NDP are in the midst of a leadership race that will double as some soul-searching about the party’s direction. This while the leftist parties in the States saw the “success” of Bernie Sanders (and I use the term loosely but his followers are totally serious about it), and the selection and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, where there is a definite shift in tone that follwos these leaders. And with that in mind, we saw a series of tweets from former federal NDP (and prior to that, UK Labour) staffer Lauren Dobson-Hughes which helps to put the New Brunswick and general NPD dynamic into context.

What Dobson-Hughes says here I think will have a lot of impact on the NDP leadership contest, and I think explains a little as to why the party wasn’t willing to give Thomas Mulcair another chance in his leadership review post-election. It’s also what the (eventual) leadership hopefuls will be navigating, so I don’t think this is the last of the internal power-struggles in the party that we’ve heard of. And while Cardy’s critics continue to grouse about him in the media, there are tensions at play that we should be cognisant of, and that will matter as the party goes forward.

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Roundup: Harder’s wrongheaded impatience

Our good friend Senator Peter Harder is at it again, going to the media about his frustrations that Senate modernization isn’t going his way. The current complaint is twofold – one, that they haven’t adopted all of the Auditor General’s recommendations; and two, that the rules allow for senators to delay debating bills for lengthy periods. So, let’s break it down.

First of all, the AG’s recommendation that the Senate require an external audit committee to provide some kind of “external validation” was a Very Bad Recommendation. I’ve argued this time and again, and I’ll say it again right here – the Senate cannot be put under external oversight because parliament is self-governing. This is a very important consideration that the AG doesn’t understand. I don’t care how many government departments and private companies use this external validation – they are not parliament and parliament is self-governing. That means that the Senate must police itself, no matter how much the AG seems to find that to be a problem (and considering how very little his audit found for how much it cost, as problematic and arbitrary as it was). And yes, an audit committee is an idea that could include external members but must have a majority of members from the Senate on it, non-negotiable. If Parliament cannot govern itself, then we might as well just declare that the past 148 years of Responsible Government were just a failed experiment and we might as well tell the Queen to take over and rule us directly again. I’m not even kidding. If Harder can’t grasp this fundamental concept, then that is a problem.

The other point, about delays, is as much Harder’s own failing as Government Leader – err, “government representative” than anything. If government bills need swift passage, he needs to make the case to the Senate, and if there are delays, then he has tools at his disposal including time allocation, which he must again, make the case for swift passage. And there are a lot of bills that the Senate does dispose of relatively quickly, particularly because the Commons likes to dump them on the Senate shortly before Parliament rises for either the holidays or summer, and implore that they get passed post-haste, and most of the time, they are. And just like with the Senate’s veto, there are sometimes cases where delay is warranted for any number of reasons, including that it’s a bad bill (such as the single sports betting bill in the previous parliament). The Senate is not a rubber stamp; changing the rules to force them to be more “disciplined” in how they debate is seriously close to curtailing the privileges of parliamentarians to suit the government’s agenda. Parliament is there to keep a check on the government, not simply nod everything through. This is one more piece in the concerning pattern that Harder is looking to make changes to an institution that he doesn’t understand and will cause lasting damage if he’s not reined in.

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Roundup: Civilian control – it’s a Thing!

Over the past couple of weeks, as the government’s “interim” fighter acquisition plans were announced and the fallout has been filtering down since. I’ve seen a lot of fairly disturbing commentary around it, not just from some of the usual ass clowns on social media, but I’ve also seen it in the House of Commons. No less than Rona Ambrose told the Prime Minister that the government needs to get out of the way of military procurement decisions and let the military decide what it needs or wants.

Nope. So much nope.

In case Ambrose or anyone else has forgotten, in a liberal democracy we insist on civilian control of the military. That’s kind of a big thing, and as Stephen Saideman points out, it’s a central ingredient and necessary thing for democracy. And it’s not just this attitude creeping out in Canada, but we’re seeing it in spades in the United States right now as Donald Trump is looking to put former military members into cabinet who haven’t passed their designated “cooling off” period yet.

It’s also why I get annoyed by these stories about how the government’s plans and policies are characterised as “contradicting” the head of the Royal Canadian Airforce, for example. The problem with these kinds of headlines is that if you’ve at all paid attention to the Canadian Forces for the past number of years, you’ll see that they will always say that they have the resources at hand to do the job they’re asked to do. If the government says that 65 new planes are enough, well, then the RCAF will make sure that 65 planes are enough, no matter how much they might like or need more. Plenty of stories filtered out during the air mission in Iraq about how the RCAF was managing it despite their budget constraints, and it was a lot do to with cannibalising training budgets and so on to ensure that those missions that were being asked of them still flew, and they did it without public complaint. (Never mind that they were concerned about the declining readiness of the fleet at the time, but they still had a job to do that was being asked of them, so they made it work).

We need to remember that governments set policies, and they are held to account for the policies they set, but it’s not up to the military to tell us what that policy should be. We’ve had procurement problems in the past where the military were allowed to set their own parameters and went wild looking for the biggest and the best kit available, and boondoggles resulted. So yes, the government can set its own policies and align procurement to match it. That’s fine. And we can hold them to account for that policy on any number of metrics. But we should really refrain from that metric being “the military said the old policy was fine” because of course they were going to say that. It’s also not their job to be yet another cudgel for opposition parties to wield and then hide behind like they do with every other institution and officer of parliament. Civilian control matters. Let’s remember to treat it that way.

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Roundup: An unexpected reversal

So, after the somewhat unexpected reversal of last night, I looked back to something from the past few days to help explain this bit of insanity that we’ve all witnessed. Michelle Rempel heard this from Republican officials late last week when she asked them how this all happened:

Here’s a look at what a Trump presidency is going to mean for Canada:

As the numbers tightened, we saw this going around:

Meanwhile, a reminder about the underlying attitudes:

I’m going to wait before I can have much else to say about the power of nativism, and this “drain the swamp” ethos that has taken over so much of the rhetoric in the campaign, and the part that civic ignorance feeds into the politics of resentment that in turn fuels this kind of thing. But wow.

I will say how glad I am once again to live in Canada, with a constitutional monarchy and a system of Responsible Government, with a Supreme Court that isn’t partisan, and with a neutral civil service. Because we’re probably going to be reminded about how important that is in the next few years.

Good reads:

  • Justin Trudeau will be stopping in Cuba and Argentina on the way to the APEC meeting in Peru, and everyone is recalling his father’s frienship with the Castros.
  • The government has named a five-person panel to make recommendations regarding overhauling the National Energy Board.
  • Here’s a look at the latest round of Order Paper questions, with questions on alcohol on government flights, classified documents and ministerial swag.
  • Here is your look at ministerial expense repayments for various and sundry reasons.
  • The Victims of Communism memorial is now up for a new design from five different bidders, to go with its new location. The original design is out of the running.
  • Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers is leaving the job and will be leading a review of segregation in Ontario prisons.
  • Conservative MP (and former sportscaster) Kevin Waugh thinks that female athletes are treated better than their male counterparts, and is being criticised for it.
  • The first Conservative leadership debate is tonight.
  • The premier of PEI is (rightfully) expressing some scepticism over the province’s electoral reform plebiscite results, and reformers are howling as a result.
  • My Loonie Politics column looks at whether the instances of Liberal backbenchers voting against the government are really signs of independence showing.

Odds and ends:

The Yukon Liberals won the territorial election on Monday night, and Trudeau congratulated prospective new premier Sandy Silver.

Both women candidates in the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race have dropped out citing harassment and intimidation.

Roundup: Walking out on Wallonia

Talks to save the Canada-EU trade agreement broke down yesterday, and after more than two days of direct talks, trade minister Chrystia Freeland walked out of the meeting and basically declared that it was now impossible for the EU to come to an international trade deal. And really, this was about the Walloons in Belgium who weren’t letting this go through. Wallonia’s president tried to sound an optimistic tone, and said that “difficulties remain” around largely the investor-state dispute resolution mechanism and wanted Justin Trudeau to hold off on his planned trip to Europe next week to finalize the deal so that the Walloons could have more time.

While Freeland said she was ready to get back on a plane and go home to see her kids, it looks like the EU president managed to keep her around for more talks, which may have been the whole point of Freeland’s exit – so that the rest of the EU could pressure Wallonia to come to their senses. While Belgium’s ambassador to Canada also said that the deal wasn’t dead, we did see some of the usual suspects line up to applaud the potential demise of the agreement, like Elizabeth May, the NDP, and the Council of Canadians.

Throughout this, however, I will admit to more than a little distaste at the snide tone of the Conservatives throughout all of this. In QP yesterday, Candice Bergen laid this at the feet of Freeland personally and declared that she would have to “wear it.” Gerry Ritz said that Freeland should have “rolled up her sleeves” and stayed at the table (which she had already been doing), and Rona Ambrose demanded that Justin Trudeau get on a plane and smooth this over himself. And there is this overall tone that the deal had been “gift wrapped” for the Liberals (after Harper had already done two symbolic signings of the agreement before it had been ratified), which is specious and facile. The Liberals have countered that the deal was essentially dead before Freeland resurrected it, largely through reopening some of the negotiations and through declaratory statements to clarify the language in the provisions of the deal, so it’s not like they didn’t do nothing. Quite the opposite, in fact. And one fails to see how it’s Freeland’s fault when pretty much everyone agrees that this is now an internal EU matter that Canada really can’t do anything about. Then again, the Conservative message around other trade deals like softwood lumber are equally fantastical (how they could have forced the Americans to come to an agreement when they clearly aren’t interested is beyond me, and there was a lot of unhappiness with the deal they signed when they first got into office that gave the Americans a victory). Sure, they signed a bunch of deals with small countries with small economies. Sure, they got CETA and TPP off the ground, but they still protected a lot of industries that didn’t necessarily deserve it, nor did they seal those deals either. Trade is a difficult business, and I’m not sure they have the moral authority to be as frankly abusive as they have been on the file.

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Roundup: Chagger vs Bergen

The big news yesterday was Rona Ambrose shuffling up her shadow cabinet after the summer of leadership announcements, and naming Candice Bergen as the new Opposition House Leader in the place of Andrew Scheer. What is of particular interest is that you have two fairly inexperienced people in the role in both the government and the official opposition, which could make for some very interesting times going forward.

To refresh, the role of the House Leader is to basically determine the agenda of the Commons (deputy leaders fill this role in the Senate), when it comes to determining what items will be up for debate on what days, the scheduling of Supply Days for opposition parties, and basically doing the procedural management. Why the fact that two relatively inexperienced MPs will be doing this is interesting is because we’ll see what kinds of ways that they prioritise things. (Bergen does have experience as a parliamentary secretary and minister of state, but little in the way of procedural experience as far as I’ve been able to determine). What everyone will be paying attention to in particular, however is tone. The fact that for the first time in history, it’s two women in the role is going to have people waiting to see just how that affects tone (as Rosemary Barton gave as her item to watch in this week’s At Issue), because we have been fed a number of gender essentialist narratives that women do things differently and without as much of the partisan acrimony – not that I necessarily believe it, given that Bergen herself is a pretty die-hard partisan. The added spoke in this wheel is the NDP’s House Leader, Peter Julian, whom I have it on good authority is unreasonable to work with at the best of times. When the tension between the House Leaders boiled over into Motion 6 in the spring (and the subsequent The Elbowing that broke that camel’s back), I have little doubt that it had a lot to do with Dominic LeBlanc losing his patience with both Scheer and Julian (who totally insisted that they weren’t even being obstructionist, which I find a bit dubious). So will they be able to work together to push through what promises to be an extremely busy legislative agenda? Or will Bardish Chagger need to start resorting to procedural tactics to ensure that bills can get passed without endless Second Reading debates that the opposition refuses to let collapse so that they can get to committee (which was constant in the previous parliament when the NDP were official opposition). I’m not going to make any predictions, but it is something that I am very curious to watch as the era of “openness and cooperation” rolls along.

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Roundup: The cynicism of Kellie Leitch

As it turns out, would-be Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch has opted not to recant her survey question on “screening” immigrants and refugees for anti-Canadian values, and has doubled down on it by insisting that there is a conversation to be had, and suggested that there was merit to the “barbaric cultural practices” tip line, but that it had simply been communicated poorly. Thus far, only Michael Chong has bothered to respond and refute the narrative that Leitch is putting forward.

Objectively, Leitch’s concerns about keeping Canada safe are nonsense because all of our domestic terror incidents have been home-grown and self-radicalizing lone wolves. That she thinks there are unified “Canadian values” are also hugely problematic because there are plenty of Canadians who are intolerant of other religions and cultures (particularly of Muslims), sexual orientations (hell, two of her other putative leadership candidates are running on socially conservative platforms that are downright homophobic), violence and misogynistic behaviour is prevalent if not endemic in our own culture, and the embrace of personal and economic freedoms is a dubious metric, especially as her own government was perfectly willing to curtail personal freedoms in the name of national security. The myth of shared values is nothing new, however, but it is just that – a myth. Add to that the notion that these values are something that can be tested or screened. Is Leitch somehow proposing polygraphing all prospective immigrants or refugees on these issues? Or, as I was not even really joking yesterday, hiring a bunch of telepaths to find out if they’re hiding something. It’s not even that this is dog whistle politics, it’s that the country repudiated this kind of thinking in the last election in a pretty big way. Leitch trying to adopt the language of Donald Trump to try and bring together her party’s base is deeply cynical and Leitch should know better (presuming she has the EQ to realize it, which I suspect she doesn’t).

In other Conservative leadership news, anti-abortionists are ready to back Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost, and probably Andrew Scheer if he winds up running again. Martin Patriquin in Maclean’s argued why these kinds of leadership candidates will continue to hurt the party’s brand.

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Roundup: Peace bonds and terror suspects

Everyone seems to want to talk about how the Aaron Driver terrorism incident went down and how it relates to the government’s plans to amend the old C-51 into something that better balances Charter rights, so here is some preliminary analysis from the expert, Craig Forcese, and more analysis that he did with Kent Roach for the Globe and the Post. And yes, the Liberals have reiterated that they plan to amend the legislation, while the NDP continue to demand its repeal (which may be difficult given how it interacts with pre-existing legislation). Meanwhile, here’s an interview with Driver’s father and a professor who studies radicalization – who noted that the isolation of the peace bond may have made that radicalization worse – and a reminder about the realities of terrorism like this in Canada versus Europe.

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