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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QP: Morneau gets scrappy

Thursday, and the benches were starting to empty out in advance of the weekend, and Elizabeth May was the only leader present. Alain Rayes led off, and as expected, he railed about the destruction of the economy by the proposed tax changes. Bill Morneau got up and calmly deployed his well-worn talking points about how the system currently advantages the wealthy and the government was looking to make things fairer for the middle class. Rayes and after him Pierre Poilievre brought up a super credible CFIB survey to decry the changes, and Bill Morneau cautioned him not to engage in scare tactics. When Poilievre tried to rail about the hypothetical 73 percent tax rate, Morneau suggested that his critic was misleading the House, and he got cautioned to withdraw the suggestion. Morneau did, and said instead that his critic was wrong and knew he was wrong, and when Poilievre tried to make this about an issue about Morneau-Shepell, Morneau retreated to his usual talking points. Hélène Laverdière led off for the NDP, wondering just what concrete action the PM announced at the UN General Assembly, to which Marc Garneau assured her that Canada was active on the world stage. Laverdière asked in English about our lack of peacekeeping commitments, to which Garneau reminded her they made the commitment, but were taking the time to consider where to deploy them. Romeo Saganash decried the lack of action on drinking water advisories, to which Jane Philpott assured him that they were dealing with the socio-economic issues around long-term problems. Saganash demanded support for his private member’s bill, and Philpott assured him they were working on First Nations child welfare.

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QP: Tax change melodrama

The first day back in the House of Commons, and all of the leaders were present — Trudeau’s only appearance for the week before he heads to the UN General Assembly, and in between appearances with U.K. prime minister Theresa May. Of note was the bouquet of flowers sitting on Arnold Chan’s desk, to mark his recent passing. Andrew Scheer led off, railing about the proposed changes to private corporations, and insisted that small businesses were being called “tax cheats.” (Note: Only the Conservatives have used that phraseology). Trudeau stood up to remind him that nobody accused anyone of breaking the law, but that these rules were being used by the very wealthy to pay less taxes, which wasn’t fair. Scheer tried again, got the same answer, and Scheer gave increasingly hysterical hypothetical situations (which were not reflected in reality), but Trudeau was unflappable in sticking to his points. Scheer tried then turn this into a dig at Bombardier, and Trudeau reminded him that they were investing in Canadian jobs. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking about UN talks on nuclear disarmament in light of North Korea, and Trudeau reminded him that they were working on a fissile materials treaty that would include nuclear states, which would have more effect than a symbolic treaty. Mulcair asked again in French, got the same answer in French, before Mulcair turned to the issue of Saudi Arabia and arms sales (Trudeau: We will ensure that our partners follow the rules, and you promised to respect that contract), and then another round of the same in English.

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Roundup: Mike Duffy, white knight

Oh, Senator Mike Duffy. For his suffering, he has decided to launch a $7.8 million lawsuit against the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Senate itself. It’s not just about the two years of suspension without pay, or the reimbursement or legal fees, or indeed about the further clawbacks of his salary that the Senate undertook for his abuse of expense claims, or about the lost income from speaking fees that he could have claimed had he not been dragged through the process. No, Duffy is so concerned about the lack of Charter rights for those who work on the Hill that he’s willing to take on this multi-million-dollar lawsuit for the principle of the matter.

Such a hero.

Now, I will be the first to admit that yes, the way in which Duffy’s suspension handled was hugely problematic, and that his rights to due process were trampled on because of political expediency, it cannot be argued that the Senate was illegitimate in the way it acted because as a self-governing parliamentary body, the Senate not only has the ability to police its own, it is in fact the only body that can police its members because of parliamentary privilege and institutional independence.

While Duffy’s lawyer was effusive in his characterisation of Duffy’s acquittal, I’m not sure that it completely passes the smell test – Duffy was found not to have met the criminal test for fraud and breach of trust, but you cannot say that no rules were broken. The Senate has pointed to numerous examples where this was the case and fined him appropriately, and while he claims that the rules were too loose and vague, that is certainly not the case with all of his rejected claims. And it will raise questions if this suit goes ahead because the judge’s ruling was indeed problematic (and I know for a fact that there are other judges on that same bench who were not keen on it), and without an appeal being raised, that could raise more questions with this trial – if it goes to trial.

Of course, we can’t deny that perhaps Duffy is looking for a settlement of a couple of million dollars, but I’m not sure that of the parties involved, the Senate would bite and go for it. They are still pretty sore about the whole thing and are keen to continue to prove that they are taking a hard line to those who abuse it. I would wager that they are more likely to fight this to the bitter end on principle, come what may.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt sees an odd parallel between Duffy and Omar Khadr in that their rights were violated (which is a bit of a stretch, legally speaking), while Christie Blatchford suggests that perhaps Duffy is indeed owed something because his rights to due process were robbed.

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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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