QP: Concerned about Mali

While Justin Trudeau was present after two weeks away, Andrew Scheer was not, spending the day in Winnipeg instead. Lisa Raitt led off in his stead, mini-lectern on desk, and she raised the announcement of a peacekeeping mission to Mali, and the risks that it would entail given the rate of casualties there. Trudeau led off with some words about engaging in peacekeeping and that they were responding to a direct request from the U.N., and would work with the opposition on how to hold a debate on the mission — but didn’t really answer about risks. Raitt wondered about whether our troops there would be able to engage in direct combat. Trudeau took up a script, and recited about how personnel would have appropriate equipment and training, but they couldn’t eliminate the risk. Raitt demanded information on what the risk was, and how many soldiers were projected to be lost. Trudeau insisted that they would remain open and responsible rather than wrap themselves in the flag and use Special Forces troops for photo ops, as the previous government did. Pierre Paul-Hus took over in French, accusing the PM of being unconcerned for troop safety. Trudeau took up a script to remind him that they were alive to the risks and would ensure that troops had equipment and training that were necessary. Paul-Hus demanded the operational guidelines, but Trudeau reiterated the plan to hold a debate in the near future. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, also asking about the Mali announcement, and Trudeau read off some more details about helicopters and medical assistance. Caron switched to English to concern troll about how this promise fell short of the promises. Trudeau noted it was odd how the Conservatives thought we were doing too much with the military and the NDP not enough, before he went off the cuff about the upcoming debate. Tracey Ramsey was up next, demanding the government stand up to US tariff threats. Trudeau noted that he was pleased to meet workers in those industries last week, and to hear their concerns. Ramsey raised Trump’s made-up facts, and Trudeau reiterated how much he enjoyed hearing from workers in those industries.

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Roundup: Expat voting rights on the line

Coming up this week is a Supreme Court of Canada hearing that I’m going to play the role of bad guy with, which is the challenge around expat voting rights in Canadian elections. And by playing the villain, I’m firmly in the camp that I think it’s perfectly acceptable that their right to vote in a Canadian election lapses after about five years, because our electoral system is based on local riding elections. If you don’t live in a riding, and haven’t for years, then your vote soon becomes meaningless because you are essentially voting for a local representative whom you’re not familiar with, with local issues you’re not impacted by, and generally you’re voting for a leader, which isn’t how our system works.

And I know, these expats challenging the law feel like their citizenship is being devalued, but their connection to the riding they’re supposed to be voting in grows ever more tenuous, even if their connection to Canada as a whole doesn’t – but it’s about mechanics. There are complaints that the five-year cut-off is arbitrary, and to an extent it is, but that said, the constitutional rule is that an election must be held within five years of the preceding one (despite the fact that our later fixed-election-date laws tend to operate on four-year cycles – yet another Americanism that we need to disavow because it hasn’t done anything constructive for our system and rather has created a whole new set of ways in which incumbent governments can try to manipulate the field). It makes it reasonable to make it five years, then, in terms of when voting rights lapse when one is absent from a riding.

The way I think about it is that these particular limits make our voting rights more protected, rather than devaluing citizenship. If you’re voting for a riding that you have no connection to, how is that upholding the integrity of the electoral process in that riding? It means that for those who are voting within that riding, it maintains that there is that special connection between the voters in the riding and those who are elected to represent them. You’re unlikely to be paying taxes if you’ve been away that long, so it’s not like a taxation-without-representation issue either, and most likely, those expats are voting in their new host countries by this point as well. Votes should mean something, and in Canada, that means a connection to a specific riding, which we shouldn’t take for granted.

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Roundup: Giving the PBO confidential data

In his report to parliament about the latest federal budget this past week, the Parliamentary Budget Officer made note that some of the information that they requested was given to them on a confidential basis – in order for them to check the maths, but not report on it public (at least for the time being). It’s a bit of an oddity that the PBO says it puts them in an awkward position, and it also raises questions about the government’s commitment to transparency.

Recently, the Department of National Defence gave the same kind of confidential information to the PBO regarding its 20-year expenditure plan, which one suspects may have to do with either sensitivities in the procurement process (remember that they have been insisting on particular secrecy declarations for those involved in the process), or not wanting to tip their hands on how they’re planning on rolling out their procurement just yet. Maybe. The government says that the budget information that was confidential was because it related to departments or Crown corporations whose information had not been approved by Treasury Board or vetted for release, which makes a certain amount of sense, and does give rise to concerns that the real stumbling block is the bureaucracy and not the government. Backing up this supposition has been complaints that Treasury Board president Scott Brison has made around his difficulty in getting departments onside when it comes to the process of reforming the Estimates, so that they reflect the budget rather than the previous fall economic update and subsequently relying on Supplementary Estimates in order to “correct” the spending plans to reflect said budget (and part of that problem has been ever-later budget releases that come after the statutory Estimates tabling dates). And our civil service, for all of the plaudits it gets internationally, is sclerotic and resistant to change, often exacerbating the “culture of secrecy” around any kind of transparency (though one also has to factor in a certain amount of incompetence around that secrecy – sometimes they’re not being secret for the sake of secrecy, but because they’re simply unable to find needed information).

There have been complaints from the pundit class that the Liberals have subverted the PBO in this manner of giving confidential information, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to go there. They could have simply stonewalled, forcing an escalation of tactics, but they didn’t. They wound up caving and giving the PBO way too much authority and way, way too broad of a mandate when they reformed his office and turned him into an Independent Officer of Parliament, and I will reiterate that they did turn over the information. The question is does this start a pattern, or is this a kind of temporary status while they continue to push the departments into making this kind of data available in a timelier manner, much like the Estimates? I’m not willing to make a final pronouncement just yet, but I am going to consider this notice, and will keep an eye on how this progresses (particularly because I do think Estimates reform is vitally important to Parliament, and if we have the same kinds of problems, then it’s a sign that there’s a systemic issue that needs to be dealt with).

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Roundup: 20 years of Vriend

There was a particular milestone that has personal significance to me yesterday, which was the twentieth anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Vriend v Alberta, where sexual orientation was official “read into” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it comes to protection from discrimination. Why it has particular significance for me was because this happened shortly after I came out, and in many ways, it opened my eyes to the cynicism of politics.

This was shortly after I completed my time as a page in the Alberta legislature, and I had become familiar with the MLAs who worked there. As a page, you have so many friendly interactions with them, as they ask about how you’re doing in school, and they sneak candy to you from the stash at their desks, and generally made you feel like a welcome part of the functioning of the chamber. But as the decision was rendered, the newspapers were full of statements from these very same MLAs whom I had come to like and respect that were full of vitriolic homophobia that it was very much like a betrayal of everything I had come to experience about them during my time as a page. Ralph Klein, who was the premier at the time, was also publicly mulling the use of the Notwithstanding Clause to opt out of the Court’s decision, but in the end, opted to respect it, and thus proving that so much of the trials and the foot-dragging by the provincial government was merely about the performance of having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present, and being “forced” to accept that gays and lesbians had rights. In other words, nobody – especially Klein, who was described by many as a liberal who adopted the Progressive Conservative mantle – had the political courage to stand up for what was right because they were afraid of the province’s Bible belt (which continues to be a thorn in the side of many to this day, with the battles of Gay-Straight Alliances in the province, and the “acceptability” in the former Wildrose party of the “Lake of Fire” comments by one of their MLAs, which eventually forced then-leader Danielle Smith to walk out, sinking the party’s fortunes).

So yes, this had a very formative impact on my political sensibilities, before I even considered journalism to be my career path. It forged much of my cynicism about electoral politics, and about the kinds of performative jackassery that is considered normal in the execution of political duties, and it especially gave me a real sense of the profiles in political courage that we see time and again, every time there’s a tough decision that MPs will defer to the Supreme Court, every single time, most recently with the decision to return the tougher decisions around medical assistance in dying back to the courts after the government refused to accept expert recommendations in their legislation. The pattern remains the same, even if the moral goalposts have shifted ever so slightly. So here’s to twenty years of Vriend, and to my human rights as a Canadian.

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Roundup: Unserious about peacekeeping promises

News came out yesterday that Canada had lined up 19 Spanish-speaking soldiers for a UN peacekeeping mission to Colombia, only for National Defence to drag their feet until the opportunity closed. With more tales like these, and others about Canada being offered leadership positions in peacekeeping operations and then turning them down repeatedly, is causing a lot of questions to be asked about just how serious we are about the promises the government made during the last election about returning to peacekeeping operations. The Chief of Defence Staff has said that there were questions about operational security, but those claims are being questioned in light of other evidence being presented. There was a very good interview on Power & Politics with Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute and the former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament, who challenged many of the points that the government and the military has made, and points to the current culture in DND, which has been out of peacekeeping game for long enough that it’s looking down on those kinds of missions. It’s worth watching if you’ve got five minutes to spare.

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Roundup: Scheer unveils more reheated policy

While at the Manning Centre Networking Conference in Ottawa yesterday, Andrew Scheer unveiled another policy plank – that he was going to support a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, post-Brexit. And a short while later, put out a press release and “backgrounder” (which was a bit content-free) to say that he was going to travel to the UK next month to start talking about just this.

Scheer is behind the times on this, because Justin Trudeau announced that he and Theresa May were already having this discussion back when she visited in September, and Scheer knows this. So he’s reiterating this for a couple of reasons, beyond the fact that he’s trying to paint the picture of Trudeau being unable to adequately handle trade negotiations (never mind that his government concluded CETA that was in danger of going off the rails, and similarly extracted concessions from TPP talks, and they haven’t rolled over on NAFTA talks).

  1. Scheer is a Brexit supporter, and his trip to the UK is at a time where the UK Parliament is dealing with their Brexit legislation and not doing very well with it. One suspects that this trip is more about offering Canadian support for Brexit from his position as Leader of the Opposition, never mind that I suspect that the vast majority of Canadians would oppose Brexit (and hell, the number of Britons who regret voting for it seems to be growing daily). But Scheer does seem to want to offer that encouragement from his position.
  2. This announcement was to a crowd of small-c conservatives who feel a great deal of affection for the Anglosphere, and suspicion for other trade deals, particularly with China. It doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility that this is a bit of red meat for that base.

Suffice to say, if this is a new bit of policy, this awfully thin gruel.

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Roundup: Another run refused

Over the weekend, the NDP made a big deal out of the fact that new leader Jagmeet Singh was “going home” to Windsor, a city where he grew up. But immediately upon arriving, he told reporters that no, he had no plans to run for a seat in the area. Never mind that he a) doesn’t have a seat currently, b) has a connection to Windsor, and he says he wants to run in a riding that he has a connection to, and c) he has three seats in the region which are relatively safe for the party, all of which are conducive to his actually doing the time-honoured thing in our system of getting one of those three MPs to temporarily step aside and let him run for a seat there in their stead for the next couple of years. And it’s not like the party won’t be able to come up with some kind of job for the displaced MP for those two years – they have found work for other displaced MPs, and hell, they could even put him or her to work in the local riding office to keep that connection going, and top up their salary from party coffers rather than pay Singh from them outright for the next two years. But no.

Meanwhile, Guy Caron is in the House of Commons four days a week, and apparently is taking a bigger hand in running the staff in the leader’s office in Ottawa (given that Singh can barely be arsed to be in Ottawa even once a week), which leads me to wonder what exactly Singh’s role as party leader actually is. Furthermore, how is he able to actually wield any authority, either with the caucus or with the staff in the leader’s office, if he’s never there? And if I’m Charlie Angus or Niki Ashton, who did better than Caron in the leadership and who are now back to their old critic roles with nothing more to show for it, I’m probably getting pretty sore that Caron, who came in last, is now the de facto leader. If I’m an NDP supporter, I’m also probably pretty concerned that Singh has immediately sidelined himself into the role of a figurehead who has no institutional role, wields almost no authority, and is merely there to tour the country, give a couple of speeches and have a few photo ops.

Nothing about this situation is acceptable in a parliamentary democracy, and absolutely no part of this is acceptable when it comes to defending Parliament itself. By insisting that parliament is irrelevant, Singh is doing fundamental damage to the institution in the eyes of Canadians, and that should raise the red flags of everyone. How can you lead a party that wants to win more seats in an institution when you personally can’t even be bothered to do so? It’s perverse, and people in his party need to start demanding that either he respects our system of government and gets a seat immediately, or maybe it’s time to find a leader who can.

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QP: Concerns over foreign fighters

The first day back from a constituency week, things were a bit delayed in getting started while new MP Richard Hébert was introduced to the Chamber — improperly, I might add, as he initially “struggled” before passing the bar, which is wrong. Only the Speaker is supposed to struggle before being taken to the chair, given the symbolism that in historical times, the Speaker had faced the wrath of the King, sometimes fatally so. This is not the case for an MP.

When QP got underway, Andrew Scheer led off, mendaciously framing a question about ISIS fighters, claiming that the government was welcoming back ISIS fighters with “reintegration services,” to which Trudeau gave some bland assurances that they were monitoring any foreign fighters returning. Scheer listed off ISIS atrocities before repeating his disingenuous framing device, and Trudeau listed services to deradicalize Canadians and noted that children who were in those situations need particular care. Scheer tried again in French, got the same answer, before changing the topic and noting that both the PM and finance minister were under investigation by the Ethics Commissioner, to which Trudeau shot back that the Conservatives were attacking the Commissioner and her integrity. Scheer then returned to the issue of the Paradise Papers and the bullshit assertion that Trudeau “pardoned” Stephen Bronfman on behalf of the CRA, and Trudeau assured him that CRA was looking into tax evasion. Guy Caron led off for the NDP, also railing about Morneau’s ethics filings, and Trudeau reminded him that they work with the Commissioner. Caron raised the fact that the postal workers union had alas raised the C-27 issue with the Commissioner months ago, as though that was of any consequences, and Trudeau reiterated his answer. Nathan Cullen got up to deliver the same again with added sanctimony, and Trudeau responded by lamenting that Cullen sat in the Chamber with him when the previous government attacked public institutions like the Ethics Commissioner and that was disappointed that the NDP would stoop so low. Cullen accused Trudeau of a cheap shot, and Trudeau made the accusation right back.

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Roundup: Artificial deadline drama

It’s one of these kinds of stories that I’m already suspicious of – the kind that presuppose that the Senate is going to delay the course of legislation. And lo, the fact that there is a story with Bill Blair out there, shaking his finger at the Senate and warning them not to delay the marijuana legislation, is one that makes me roll my eyes because 1) the Bill still hasn’t passed the Commons, and may not yet for another week; and 2) I have heard zero plans from any senators that this is something that they intend to sit on until any deadlines pass or expire. In fact, I’ve heard pretty much the opposite – that to date, there is an extreme reluctance on the part of those making up the Independent Senators Group to delaying or being perceived to be delaying government bills, and they will provide the statistics to show that they pass bills faster than the House of Commons does as a way to prove that they don’t delay bills.

Oh, but what about the national anthem bill, which Conservative senators are sitting on and deliberately delaying? Well, that’s a private member’s bill, so it is at the mercy of Senate procedure, unlike a government bill – as the marijuana legislation is – which not only takes precedence over other business in the Senate, and which Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” could invoke time allocation on, and I’m sure that he would be able to get enough votes for it to pass (grumbling of Conservative senators aside). This having been said, I think that perhaps it may be pushing it for the government to insist that a major piece of legislation like the marijuana bill be passed by the Senate within three weeks given that they took much longer on it, and given that provincial governments have a lot to say on the matter – though I’m hearing that the Senate will likely sit a full week longer than the Commons will before they rise for the Christmas break, meaning that if the Commons passes it by this Friday, it would be four weeks for the Senate to pass it before the break, which is a long time for a bill in the Senate, but not unreasonable. And if the Commons was so concerned about how long it was taking, they would have picked up their own pace on the bill beforehand. They didn’t, and didn’t invoke time allocation on it thus far, meaning that this concern of Blair’s is artificial and used to create some faux drama. People aren’t stupid – creating a problem where one doesn’t exist is just as likely to backfire than it is to try and shame the Senate into doing your bidding.

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Roundup: No maple death squads

A story that caught my eye yesterday was on the topic of foreign fighters who may return now that ISIS/Daesh has fallen. More particularly was the notion that the US, UK and France have all made it policy to try and target and kill their own home-grown fighters rather than risk them returning to their own countries. Canada, however, came out explicitly yesterday to state that we aren’t doing the same because we don’t engage in death squads. And yes, we’re taking the issue seriously, and our security forces are on alert, and so on. While it may be astonishing to hear, it’s also not unsurprising considering that this is a government that is committed to the Charter, and extrajudicial killings would seem to be a gross violation thereof.

The problem? Some of the responses.

While I have a great deal of respect for the good senator, I’m a bit troubled by the sentiments expressed because the implicit message is that governments should feel free to violate the Charter with impunity, with either extrajudicial killings, or processes that violate the Charter and our other international obligations against torture, as with the reference to Omar Khadr. And worse, the kinds of responses to that tweet are pretty disturbing in their own right.

Aside from the fact that any of these targeted killings would be outside of the rule of law, Stephanie Carvin also points out that this kind of policy would be a false certainty, particularly when it comes to verification. I would also add that it would seem to me that it keeps the focus elsewhere than on home soil, where radicalisation still happens to one extent or another, and I do think there is likely a sense that “Hey, we’ve killed them over there,” then we don’t think about how they were radicalised at home in the first place, and we don’t put in the time and resources toward solving that issue. Nevertheless, that our government follows the rule of law shouldn’t be a news story, but in this day and age, it would seem to be.

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