Roundup: A couple of reality checks

As we head into the final week of the Commons’ sitting for 2017, there have been a couple of recurring themes in the past few weeks that could each use some good dose of Stephanie Carvin. The first issue remains that of returning foreign fighters, and the way in which the Conservatives keep repeating in Question Period that the Liberal strategy is apparently “poetry and podcasts,” which a) nobody has seriously suggested, and b) deliberately confuses preventative deradicalization programmes with those geared toward rehabilitating those who have returned from foreign warzones who may not have been active combatants (most of whom are dead by this point).

And then there is the Prime Minister’s trip to China, where a free trade deal wasn’t secured, which Carvin is an acknowledged China sceptic about from a national security standpoint, particularly because China doesn’t like to play fair, and will use tactics that include imprisonment and de facto hostage-taking in order to try and get their way in trade disputes.

Let’s hope that the opposition has a chance to listen to some of what Carvin has to say before they ask some more…dubious questions this week.

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Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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QP: Virtually ignoring the AG’s report

While the day got started with a report by the Auditor General, which in any other parliament would be the subject matter by which Question Period would be seized with. But not this parliament, at this particular time, with these particular denizens therein. Andrew Scheer led off, raising the AG’s concerns about the CRA’s call centre performance, and Justin Trudeau praised the report that would help them do better, which they intended to do, but it also reminded the House that the previous government cut services over a decade. Scheer switched to English and tried to turn this into a question about how Stephen Bronfman picked up the call to get his tax issues cleared — utterly false — and Trudeau repeated his previous answer in English. Excited, Scheer’s cadence got breathier as he raced through a scripted question on the Ethics Commissioner to clearing Bill Morneau to table Bill C-27 — which is utterly absurd procedurally — and Trudeau reminded him that they work with the Ethics Commissioner and take her advice. After another round of the same in French, Scheer stumbled through an accusation that the Liberals don’t follow rules, and Trudeau stuck to his points about the Commissioner. Guy Caron led for the NDP, railing about the revelations from the AG on the Phoenix pay system, to which Trudeau reminded the House that the system was brought in by the previous government — to much uproar — and listed off who they were working with. Caron railed that there should be a refund for the system, and Trudeau listed mistakes the previous regime made, and promised that they were working to fix it. Alexandre Boulerice, making a telephone hand gesture, mimed a call to the CRA, and Trudeau noted that they were working on fixing things after a decade of cuts. Nathan Cullen took over for a round of the same in English, and got much the same answer.

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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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QP: Here’s how your riding benefitted!

A rainy Wednesday in Ottawa, and all of the leaders were once again in the Commons, awaiting QP — three days in a row! It’s been a long time since that happened. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading a stilted condemnation of Bill Morneau. Justin Trudeau reminded him that they have an Ethics Commissioner to protect the integrity of the institutions. Scheer insisted that it only works when they disclose, as the villa was not (not entirely true — the villa was disclosed but not the ownership structure), and Trudeau reiterated that they have confidence in the Commissioner. Scheer tried to press on when he learned about the villa’s ownership corporation, and Trudeau reminded him that they have a habit of attacking officers of parliament. Scheer accused the government of “hiding” things from the Commissioner — not really true — and then demanded to know if the Ethics Commissioner was advised of Morneau’s recusals, and Trudeau offered the lecture on the importance of opposition and why it was important to have a Commissioner that was above that. Scheer demanded to know if the Commissioner was advised before Bill C-27 was tabled, and Trudeau reiterated that they work with the Commissioner constantly. Guy Caron was up next, leading for the NDP, and read out statements that Trudeau made about leadership and accountability during the Harper era, and accused him of not living up to his word. Trudeau insisted that he has raised the bar with openness and transparency, and after a second round for the same in French, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet repeated much the same question in French. Trudeau reminded the House about their move for proactive disclosure that the NDP balked at. Boutin-Sweet repeated the question in English, and got much the same reply.

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Roundup: There is no conflict with Bill C-27

Of the many Morneau Shepell conspiracy theories going around the past few weeks, the one that probably irritates me the most is the Bill C-27 iteration, especially in the way that fellow reporters and pundits will opine on the topic. The theory goes that Bill Morneau is allegedly in an “apparent” conflict of interest because a) when he was with Morneau Shepell, he advocated for the creation of targeted benefit plans; b) when he became finance minister, he sponsored Bill C-27, An Act to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985, which allows for the creation of targeted benefit plans in federally regulated sectors, and c) because he still had shares in Monreau Shepell (albeit indirectly) that it would enrich him if the bill passed, and hey, the share price of Morneau Shepell went up when the bill was tabled (never mind that it returned to its former price weeks later). It’s all ludicrous when you actually understand what’s going on, but since the NDP proffered this latest theory as part of Morneau’s alleged misdeeds, it’s been repeated uncritically, and it’s starting to get on my nerves.

First of all, last I checked people get into politics all the time to advance issues that they care about, and Morneau was a recognized expert on pensions. And pension reform was one of the things he was charged with undertaking when he became finance ministers. The pension debate has been going on for years, and targeted benefit plans are a recent iteration that several groups, including CARP, have been advocating for. Now, the NDP are opposed to them because they think that everyone should get a defined benefit plan like was the case in the 1950s, never mind that the actuarial tables don’t actually support them anymore, given that people stopped smoking two packs a day and dying early. (No, seriously – talk to an economist and they’ll tell you that this is a real thing). And Morneau Shepell is just one company that deals with administering these kinds of plans, and C-27 would not mandate them – it would simply give federally regulated industries the option to use them.

But the bigger issue is this notion that it was somehow inappropriate for Moneau personally to sponsor the bill. The problem? That ministers don’t sponsor bills as individuals. Government legislation is put forward on behalf of the government – meaning Cabinet as a whole. A minister sponsors the bill as the office holder because they have to answer for how this bill affects their departments, and in this case, it’s the Department of Finance. If there was a cabinet shuffle tomorrow and someone else became finance minister, it wouldn’t affect the bill because the office holder sponsors it to respond on behalf of the department. It has little to do with Morneau himself, and ministers don’t sponsor bills because they’re interested in the subject matter. (Note: This is why it’s a problem that there is no Government Leader in the Senate to sponsor government bills introduced in the Senate). Trying to say that it was inappropriate for Morneau to sponsor this bill, or that it can’t go ahead under his name, is civically illiterate nonsense, and reporters should know this. But they don’t.

As for Morneau’s shares, if they had been in a blind trust, we would likely still be having this conversation because he would have still been making money on them if they increased in value as they were gradually divested at a pace nobody would know about. A blind trust is not some panacea, but people have glommed onto it like some kind of ethical talisman. That’s likely why Mary Dawson said that an ethics screen was a more appropriate mechanism, and lo, it was established; likewise, it’s why she was apparently surprised by Moreau’s decision to divest his shares – because it’s unnecessary, but a number of pundits have declared that this is the thing to do without necessarily thinking it through. Also, Dawson didn’t say she was “concerned” about C-27, or that she was about to launch an investigation into it – she said she would follow-up with Morneau, and I’m pretty confident that she is going to come back and say that there is no actual issue here.

And this is partially why I’m getting tired of this constant wailing and gnashing of teeth about Morneau’s “apparent” conflicts – because if you actually stop to think about them, there are no apparent conflicts. The “appearance” of conflict has been put forward by people lining up information in a way that looks bad in order to make political gain, and We The Media have been repeating it uncritically rather that running it through a bullshit filter and declaring that yup, this is bullshit. (Most especially the attempts to drag the Bank of Canada and the Bombardier loan into this). But there is also some Tall Poppy Syndrome at work here (Morneau’s wealthy? Well we couldn’t have that!), and this urge by some of the punidtariat to moralize without thinking through the facts, while at the same time the Twitter mobbing ramps up. We really haven’t been doing our jobs here.

My last thought on this is that this is really endearing the Ethics Commissioner position for someone to apply for it. Given the strict requirements, and the fact that this latest episode has demonstrated that MPs can’t get their act together on their own ethics regime (seriously – they adopted this system, refused to change it when the flaws were pointed out, and then turn around an insist that the it’s not enough to just follow the rules that they put into place), I’m increasingly having a hard time imagining someone wanting to take on this job. We may wind up with Mary Dawson in this job forever.

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QP: Morneau’s surprise announcement

As is not unusual for a Thursday (somewhat unfortunately), neither the prime minister nor leader of the opposition were present for another day of scripted outrage and conspiracy theories. Pierre Poilievre led off, and railed about the prohibition of ministers owning stocks, and demanded to know if Bill Morneau owned stocks from other companies in his numbered corporations. Morneau regaled the Commons with his meeting with the Ethics Commissioner, and his intention to donate any profit made since he was elected. Poilievre was caught a bit flat-footed by the answer, and stumblingly wondered if he would donate the tax credit from that donation to paying off the deficit, and Morneau stood up to wax lyric about ethics and others conducting their own affairs. Poilievre returned to his demands to know what is in Morneau’s other numbered companies, but Morneau retreated to his more standard pabulum about how they were helping Canadians. Alain Rayes was up next, and spouted the Morneau Shepell/Bombardier conspiracy theory as if it were a mathematical equation. Navdeep Bains was up to list off their support of the aerospace industry. Rayes tried to list the various Morneau Shepell tentacles, to which Bains reiterated the support for aerospace. Guy Caron was up next to lead for the NDP, and he raised the Morneau Shepell/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory, to which Morneau praised their work on pension reforms and the work they’ve done to date. Caron switched to French to list previous resignations due to conflicts, and tried to wedge the C-27 conspiracy theory into it, but Morneau reiterated his commitment to going above and beyond the ethics rules. Ruth Ellen Brosseau was up next, and demanded the government tell the Senate to pass Rona Ambrose’s bill on sexual assault training for judges. While the question should have been disallowed, Jody Wilson-Raybould stated how proud she was the support the bill, but obviously would not comment on the Senate’s internal business. Scott Duvall was up next to demand changes to bankruptcy laws, but Bains wouldn’t make any promises, only promising to help Sears employees.

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QP: Responding not in anger but with pity

Wednesday, caucus day, and Justin Trudeau was present for QP, ready to take all of the questions. Whether he would actually answer them, well, remained to be seen. Andrew Scheer led of, mini-lectern on desk, and read about the reach that we call the Morneau Shepell conspiracy theory, Bombardier edition. Trudeau stated that it was false, there was not conflict of interest, and that they were supporting the aerospace sector. Scheer switched to English, asked the same thing, and Trudeau simply reiterated the support for aerospace, but didn’t denounce the accusation. Scheer tried again, and Trudeau said that the opposition was only interested in slinging mud because they couldn’t fault their economic growth. Scheer tried to pivot to the tax credit for diabetics, and Trudeau insisted that they would never be as mean as the Conservatives to cancel refugee healthcare or closing veterans offices. Scheer tried to riff on how “mean” the Liberals were to businesses or farmers, or indeed diabetics, but Trudeau hit back with his economic record that the Conservatives failed at. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he railed about the Morneau Shepell conspiracy theory, Bill C-27 edition, to which Trudeau denounced the accusations, and reminded him of the ethics screen. Caron demanded a closing of loopholes, and Trudeau expressed his disappointment in the NDP for going for the Conservative tactics of personal attacks. Nathan Cullen was up next to sanctimoniously denounce Morneau Shepell and its various tentacles, and Trudeau responded by regaling him with tales of visiting Alberta and Quebec of the last few weeks and he heard about how everyone praised the Canada Child Benefit. Cullen stated that he was moving a motion at the Ethics Committee to call Morneau before them, to which Trudeau listed the programs they feel are making a difference for Canadians.

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QP: Having confidence in the Ethics Commissioner

While Bill Morneau was off in New Brunswick to talk tax changes, Justin Trudeau was present for the first time this week, so it was guaranteed to be a gong show. After a moment of silence, Andrew Scheer, led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting that Morneau still “controlled” millions of dollars of his own wealth (which I’m not sure is an accurate portrayal of the situation). Trudeau reminded him that Morneau had followed the Ethics Commissioner’s advice, and had additionally just sent her a letter to see if there was anything he could do to go above and beyond her request. After another round of the same in French, Scheer read a portion of Morneau’s mandate letter and demanded to know when Trudeau knew that he was in a conflict of interest. Trudeau reiterated his previous response, calling it the kind of integrity that Canadians expect. Scheer accused Morneau of attacking small businesses while protecting his own wealth. Trudeau returned to questions of tax fairness, and when Scheer pressed, Trudeau produced a copy of the Liberal campaign platform and read that it was a promise made then that they kept. Guy Caron was up for the NDP, and he too pressed on Morneau’s shares, and Trudeau reiterated that Morneau worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Caron proffered the latest conspiracy theory that Morneau tabled Bill C-27 for the sole benefit of his old company, and Trudeau reiterated the Commissioner talking points. Nathan Cullen reiterated the claims in English, and Trudeau tripped up in referring to the Commissioner as the “Conflict of Ethics Commissioner,” to great uproar. Cullen tried again, and got the same answer — including the same slip-up.

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Roundup: Holding companies and crying wolf

The fixation on Bill Morneau and his family wealth is becoming mind-numbing, with new conspiracy theories and allegations of conflicts of interest arriving daily. While the Conservatives made him the subject of their Supply Day motion, demanding he produce all documents he shared with the Ethics Commissioner while continuing to promulgate the absurd conspiracy theory that he was pushing through the private corporation tax changes for the benefit of his company, while the NDP crowed about more alleged “appearances” of conflicts with his tabling a pension reform bill that his family company could, in theory, benefit from. And the subject of whether or not he still controls shares in said family company went through the media cycle like a tornado, with confirmation from the Ethics Commissioner in committee testimony that she didn’t tell Morneau to place his shares into a blind trust – because, as it turns out, he doesn’t control them, having already offloaded them into a holding company that he doesn’t control (apparently his wife does), and none of this is subject to current rules under the Conflict of Interest Act. In response to it all, Morneau sent a letter to the Commissioner requesting a meeting to see if there’s anything else he can do to further comply with the rules that he’s already complying with per her advice.

Two things here – one is that the Commissioner has raised this exception to the Act in the past, and when the Act last came up for review in 2014, she flagged it then and it wasn’t acted upon. Guess who was in power then? The Conservatives, who also pushed through all of those changes to various accountability legislation in 2009, along with the NDP. The second point is that we have constantly been bombarded with constant baseless accusations about the “appearance” of a conflict of interest for everything under the sun. And with these various conspiracy theories being put forward, even Occam’s Razor will tell you that the idea that these changes being put forward, either to pensions or private corporation taxation, for the benefit of Morneau’s company are absurd on the face of it. Pension reforms have long been debated, and there are reams of data about the problems that these private corporations are being used for reasons they were not intended to be by wealthy individuals in order to avoid taxation. Trying to use Morneau as an excuse to make the government back off on either is absurd and shows just how debased our ability to debate is in this country if debate is being replaced by personal attack. Never mind the fact that there has been a whole lot of crying wolf. If everything is a conflict, then nothing is a conflict. Sooner or later a wolf will come, and nobody will care anymore, having been completely numbed by the constant cries beforehand.

(Incidentally, Dawson also called on the government to amend their fundraising bill to include parliamentary secretaries as those who must report, for what it’s worth).

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