QP: Infrastructure Bank blues

It was a grey day in the Nation’s Capital, and outside of the Centre Block, the lawn was littered with Catholic high school students bussed up to the Hill for the March for Life, with a couple of Conservative leadership candidates in the mix. Rona Ambrose led off, concerned about potential waste and duplication created by the Infrastructure Bank, and cited a KPMG report that the government commissioned (highlighted by a Globe and Mail story, of course). Amarjeet Sohi defended the Bank as delivering funds after a decade of inconsistent investment by the previous government. Ambrose suggested that the Bank was simply giving money to billionaires, but Sohi insisted that they were delivering for communities. Ambrose tried a third time, but Sohi listed possible projects the Bank could fund. Alain Rayes picked up the line of questioning in French, considering it “Sponsorship Scandal 2.0.” Sohi carried on with his points about what it could fund. Rayes railed about redacted documents around consultations conducted about the Bank, but Sohi insisted that the documents given to investors were all online. Matthew Dubé and Rachel Blaney worried about tolls associated with projects funded by the Bank in both official languages (Sohi: Your party has no plan for infrastructure), and then both turned to the KPMG report (Sohi: Here are some Canadian funds who want to invest in infrastructure).

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Senate QP: Morneau talks growth

After a length delay owing to a snap vote in the Commons, Senate QP finally got underway with special guest star, finance minister Bill Morneau. Senator Smith led off, worrying that for an “innovation budget,” it wasn’t doing enough for promoting business investment I order to promote innovation. Morneau responded by reminding Smith that the fundamental challenge they were trying to address was slow growth, and noted that the reduction of unemployment was a sign that their plan was working, creating a level of optimism that would attract future growth. Smith insisted that they should be lowering taxes and giving an EI break for hiring younger people, but Morneau wasn’t sold on Smith’s logic, pointing out flaws with this argument around corporate tax rates and said that they were on track for a higher level of growth.

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Roundup: A reasonable plea for restitution

Retired Senator Sharon Carstairs is looking to be reimbursed for some $80,000 in legal fees after being caught up in the Auditor General’s report on expenses, and it’s a tale that exposes how shabbily many senators were treated in the wake of that report. To recap, that AG report essentially made up a bunch of rules that did not exist, particularly around how many days a year constituted “primary residency,” which Carstairs got caught up in. And in a rush to show the public that they were taking this report seriously, the Senate turned over the report directly to the RCMP, and Carstairs was left trying to keep her reputation intact, hence retaining counsel and trying to explain that she hadn’t broken any rules.

What needs to be repeated again with this story is just how problematic that AG report was. When the Senate later retained its own counsel to go over that report to see if they should try to sue any of the senators who had refused to repay or seek arbitration for the identified sums (which included Carstairs), that legal review laid bare the arbitrary rules that the AG imposed as part of his review, and essentially how shoddily it was done. And I know several senators who simply opted to pay back the sum rather than keep fighting it because they wanted it to go away – Carstairs refused, and it looks like she’s going to be punished for it, whether financially with the loss (the maximum reimbursement for legal fees under Senate rules is generally $25,000), but also with the loss of reputation. I would hope that the Senate has had enough time since the audit that they can now revisit this case and offer the apology and what restitution they can, and admit that they were hasty in their actions because they were trying to appease a public that was baying for blood post-Duffy, for what good it did them. I would also hope that more of my media colleagues would also start calling out the AG for the problems in his report when cases like Carstairs’ come up again in the media, but I suspect that won’t happen, as we pay far too much deference to him as being untouchable and infallible, when clearly that’s not the case.

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QP: Manufacturing concerns

With Justin Trudeau and several ministers off to Nunavut for meetings, none of the other leaders (save Elizabeth May) decided to show up either. Denis Lebel led off for the Conservatives, demanding to know the strategy to create jobs while maintaining links with the Americans. Chrystia Freeland noted her trip and said they were building relationships. Lebel decried the deficit going “out of control” and wanted to know if the government would end pension income splitting. François-Philippe Champagne fielded this one, praising tax cuts that the Conservatives voted against. Lebel worried about other boutique tax credits, and Champagne stuck to generalities about working for the middle class. Candice Bergen decried the possibility that dental and health benefits would be taxed because the government voted against their cutely worded opposition motion, and Champagne reminded her that the first thing they did was cut taxes, and then there was another round of the same. Jenny Kwan railed about the safe third country agreement for asylum seekers, to which Ahmed Hussen reminded her that the agreement has no bearing on the current situation. Laverdière asked the same in French, raising those 22 claimants who crossed the border at Manitoba, and got much the same answer. Laverdière then asked about that Muslim family stopped at the border and denied entry into the States, and Ralph Goodale said that the local MP was on the case, and they were waiting for more information. Kwan asked the same again in English, and Goodale was more clear that he would follow up personally when presented with the facts.

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QP: Seniors and softwood

Tuesday afternoon, and the benches were full for the grand inquest of the nation. Rona Ambrose led off, worried about that Vincent Lee, who beheaded someone on a bus several years ago (declared criminally not responsible) who is now freed and changed his name. Trudeau responded that they were working to ensure that all Canadians were kept safe. Ambrose pressed, and Trudeau said that he sympathized with the family of the victim, but wouldn’t commit to tougher measures, nor did he make any point that this was a case where it was someone suffering from a mental health issue and not a criminal case. Ambrose switched to tax measures for seniors and wanted assurances that Trudeau wouldn’t repeal them. Trudeau responded by listing measures that the have taken to benefit seniors, and when Ambrose called him on it, his answer didn’t change much. Ambrose closed off by worrying that softwood lumber talks were not in any new ministerial mandate letters, and Trudeau assured her that they were working with the Americans  on this and a number of trade files, ensuring that they know how many jobs rely on trade with Canada. Thomas Mulcair was up next, declaring that Trudeau had broken the law on his holiday with the Aga Khan and wondered if he had met with the Ethics Commissioner yet and what he told her. Trudeau reiterated that the Aga Khan was an old family friend and he would answer any questions she had. Mulcair pressed, but Trudeau stuck to his points. Mulcair moved onto the recommendation from Morneau’s advisory panel that they raise the OAS age back to 67, and Trudeau said they would not. Mulcair railed about how this was the recommendation and that Morneau didn’t rule it out, but Trudeau reminded him that it was a promise they kept.

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Roundup: Asking for an electoral pony

It was entirely expected to happened, and lo and behold, Nathan Cullen stepped in front of some microphones today to cherry-pick the results of the MyDemocracy survey to declare that it told him just what he wanted to hear. Or rather, the whole survey was a failure except for the one table that proved his point.

That single table was the index that said that Canadians want parties to work together. Obviously, that means proportional representation, right? Never mind the other responses that disprove that with Canadians saying that they want simple ballots and having single parties to hold to account when things go wrong – you know, things that are more hallmarks of a First-Past-the-Post system. Of course, PR advocates have a long history of hearing what they want to hear, like how our friends at Fair Vote Canada very creatively interpreted the Liberals’ platform promise about ending FPTP to “prove” that it obviously means a PR system and only a PR system. Because that’s what they wanted to hear. And then there was Cullen’s rhetoric around it. “The idea that the Liberals, having heard all this evidence in favour of proportional systems, would then turn their backs on that promise and try to bring in a ranked ballot, alternative vote system, would be the equivalent of nuclear war in politics,” he said. That’s right. Nuclear war. Cripes.

Here’s the thing about the whole “Canadians want parties to cooperate” thing. It’s like moms and apple pie. Of course people want parties to cooperate. That’s a no-brainer. The problem of course is that decisions need to be taken, and people need to be held to account for those decisions. Our system is very much built on accountability, because that’s really the whole point of parliament. It’s to hold the government to account for the decision that it makes. When parties cooperate to make decisions, it makes accountability harder because when everyone is accountable then nobody is accountable, which is a problem for our system of government. Add to that, under our system of Responsible Government, it requires competition between parties for that power to govern. The tension between government and opposition is crucial not only for the exchange of ideas, but to both ensure that there is accountability and a suitable replacement waiting in the wings if the government should lose confidence. You can’t do that if you’re all working together.

The other part about insisting that “Canadians want parties to work together” is that it’s a wish that has about as much depth as people wanting a pony. It assumes that there are no trade-offs or downsides, and that you can simply ride or pet that pony at your leisure and not have to worry about feeding it, housing it, cleaning it, or shovelling out the barn. It’s far less glamourous, and sometimes ponies are mean, and they kick and bite. Sure, a voting system that you think will encourage parties to work together sounds like sunshine and rainbows, but it also means smaller parties holding larger ones hostage to try and gain outsized influence on decisions, and the inability for a government to speak with one voice, which is another one of those crucial things in our system that helps keep things accountable. So sure, people will answer on a survey that they want cooperation. It sounds like a wonderful thing. Reality of course is different, and people need to be very aware of that.

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QP: Something pretty fishy

On a snowy day in the Nation’s Capital, we had a mere single major leader present for QP, that being Thomas Mulcair. Denis Lebel led off, railing about Chinese billionaires and ethics rules, which got some of the usual points from Dominic LeBlanc about fundraising rules, seeing that he was answering in the place of Bardish Chagger (who is up north on small business and tourism-related work). Lebel wonder if the forestry industry needed to fundraise for the party to get heard, and Lebel assured him that they were working on solutions for that sector. Lebel switched to English to re-ask his first question, got the same answer, and then Candice Bergen took a turn on the same topic. LeBlanc assured her that the rules were followed, and on the second go-around, LeBlanc started listed similar fundraisers held by Conservatives while they were in power. Thomas Mulcair was up next, raising the Canada 2020 story and their sudden attempt to create distance between themselves and the government. LeBlanc listed fundraisers that Mulcair attended, and they went for another round in English. Mulcair then raised the limitations that the new CPP enhancements would have against women raising children, and Scott Brison said that this was an issue that was being raised at the next meeting with provincial and territorial ministers. Mulcair went another round of the same, raising that Pierre Trudeau fixed this 40 years ago, and Brison reiterated his response with some added praise for the Canada Child Benefit.

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QP: Having trouble with the concept of a charitable foundation

While the PM headed off to Africa for the Francophonie summit, the other major leaders were present, ready to go. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, railing about the menace of Chinese billionaires, apparently selling out the country for Liberal party donations. Dominic LeBlanc reminded her that only Canadian citizens can donate to political parties, and there was full disclosure. Ambrose insisted there was a conflict of interest with government business being discussed there, and LeBlanc deflected, noting the broad consultations that the government engages in all the time. Ambrose raised the case of a judge striking down a mandatory minimum sentence on a child sexual offence, and railed about the PM defending the judge. Jody Wilson-Raybould noted that they take child sexual offences seriously and that they are looking at criminal justice reform with an eye for maximum discretion for judges. Ambrose asked in French, and got the same response. Ambrose then moved onto the issue of Yazidi refugees and the inadequate number being targeted for relocation, and John McCallum stated that the number quoted was not the one that they were working with. Thomas Mulcair was up next, railing about cash-for-access and insinuating that the country was being sold out to these donors. LeBlanc reminded him that the Chief Electoral Officer praised the fundraising rules. Mulcair switched to French to note the donation by that Chinese billionaire to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation as a conflict of interest. LeBlanc noted that the foundation was an independent charitable organization that former MPs Chuck Strahl and Megan Leslie sat on the board of. Mulcair moved to the topic of Kinder Morgan and its pending approval, to which Jim Carr reminded him of the added consultation process they applied to it. Mulcair thundered about the same approach being taken by the Conservatives, and Catherine McKenna asserted that the process was led by science and fact.

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Roundup: The scourge of billionaires

If you thought that the temptation to blame elites for everything was simply the crass tactics of Kellie Leitch – herself among the most elite of elites – then you’d be wrong. Yesterday Rona Ambrose decided to take a page from the very same playbook and rail in a speech open to media about how the Liberals were elites who were *gasp!* meeting with billionaires to talk about investment opportunities in Canada. OH NOES! The horror of it all! And not just billionaires – billionaires from Beijing and Dubai! Because it never hurts to get a bit of a protectionist/xenophobic twist to your moral panic. But then again, the Conservatives never could decide if they actually wanted to attract or shut down foreign investment, as they left rules deliberately vague so that they could indulge their protectionist, populist impulses when it suited their needs politically.

Part of what’s galling is the real lack of self-awareness that Ambrose is displaying in this kind of speech. While she’s trying to take a populist tack, her examples are all poor ones to prove her case about those darn elites being against ordinary working folks. Leaving aside that as MPs, they are the elites, the examples of things like cancelling the children’s fitness tax credit don’t even fit their rhetoric. Why? Because the Liberal not only replaced those myriad of tax credits with a broad-based income tax cut, but also with far more generous and untaxed child benefit payments, while those tax credits were non-refundable, meaning that they were generally inaccessible to low-income Canadians who needed them, but rather were far more beneficial to higher-income families who had the money to spend on the sports or arts or whatever to get the full benefit of said credits. In other words, trying to make a “regular families” argument in the “us versus the elites” narrative doesn’t stand up to logic or reality. The fact that they are willing to start indulging in this kind of rhetoric should be alarming, because the last thing we want to do is start trading in the politics of resentment like we’ve seen in the States. Only madness lies that way.

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QP: Questions about NAFTA

While Justin Trudeau was off in Cuba, and after Rona Ambrose walked in her party’s newest MP, Glen Motz, she led off Question Period by wondering why the government would be so quick to be willing to renegotiate NAFTA. Navdeep Bains responded, talking about how they were looking to protect and advance Canada’s interests. Ambrose then moved onto the Infrastructure Bank, and wondered who would be backstopping overages, and Marc Garneau got up to praise how great infrastructure spending was, but didn’t really answer the question. Ambrose then moved onto Keystone XL and lamented that the PM was “silent” and misled energy workers. Jim Carr stood up to reassure her that they still supported it and the approvals were still in place, but the company themselves had to reapply to the US. Ambrose switched to French to return to the NAFTA question, and Bains repeated his earlier answer in English. Ambrose then pivoted again to UNRWA funding, accusing the government of using those funds to put Israeli citizens at risk. Marie-Claude Bibeau said that they were ensuring that there were robust controls, but they preferred Palestinian children in schools than on the streets.  Thomas Mulcair lamented instances of surveillance of journalists and demanded a full national public inquiry. Ralph Goodale insisted there were no ongoing operations, and they welcomed input from journalists and lawyers on improving the law. Mulcair switched in French to demand concrete steps to protect freedom of the press. Goodale insisted that there was no argument, that they had appropriate safeguards and were open to input on improving the law. Mulcair then switched to the issue of softwood lumber as part of trade deals, and Bains assured him that they were looking to protect Canadian interests. Mulcair switched to English to press the issue, and Bains insisted that they were looking for Canadian jobs.

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