Roundup: A big meeting, no big answers

Yesterday saw the big meeting between Justin Trudeau and premiers Rachel Notley and John Horgan on the subject of the Trans Mountain expansion, and what was supposed to be a 35-minute tête-à-tête turned into over 90. We didn’t get specifics out of the meeting, but we got some clues, in particular that Horgan is pointing to deficiencies in the government’s ocean protections plan, while Trudeau and Notley will be in discussion with Kinder Morgan about a possible stake in the project to help with risk mitigation, and to get the ball rolling before construction season. Trudeau also noted some kind of upcoming legislation to reiterate federal jurisdiction over the project, but one hopes that they don’t try to declare this under Section 92(10)(c) of the Constitution, because it’s already federal jurisdiction and invoking that when the jurisprudence is already settled would introduce doubt that doesn’t actually exist – no matter what Horgan seems to imply.

And then comes along Andrew Scheer, who demonstrates either a wilful ignorance of history, or a willingness to again demonstrate that he is a fabulist – or possibly a combination of the two. Regardless, his particular assertions about the history of government investment in energy projects is woefully mistaken and wrong.

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/985695819494899712

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/985694128561246208

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt looks at how the meeting de-escalated the tensions somewhat, while Paul Wells reads everyone’s positions, and wonders if the government’s plans actually address Kinder Morgan’s concerns. Also, here’s a reminder about the last time a BC premier tried to intrude on federal jurisdiction and got slapped down hard by the federal government.

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Roundup: Peter Harder, hero of the Senate

Oh, Senator Peter Harder. The Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” did the media rounds yesterday to both promote his fifty-page position paper on his conception of the constitutional role of the Senate, and to kick at the Conservatives whom he claims are “sabotaging” his attempts to turn the Senate into a less partisan place. (I have a column reacting to the contents of the paper coming out later, so stay tuned for that). I’m constantly struck by Harder’s attempts to play the hero in this when he’s done virtually nothing to earn the title. Aside from putting out this paper in advance of the Modernization committee’s upcoming report, Harder has pretty much eschewed his actual duties of negotiating with the various caucuses in the Senate on legislative timelines (because negotiating and horse-trading is “partisan”), and he didn’t do his job in canvassing the votes for the marijuana bill, and even though it was in no danger of being defeated, he still got caught with his pants down and was a big drama queen about it. But instead of taking a modicum of personal responsibility for not doing his job, he instead blames the Conservatives for “sabotage” when they’re doing their job as opposition, when he would prefer that Senators never defeat bills (which would make his job even easier and put even less pressure on him to do his job). And yet nobody pushes back against his narratives in the media.

Senator McCoy meanwhile, makes a point that hasn’t been well aired in public yet, which is that Harder has been pushing for the Senate to return to the model of the Clerk being responsible for all of the Senate’s bureaucracy rather than the three-clerk model that they moved to post-Duffy scandal – a model which forces senators to take more responsibility for their actions rather than being able to blame their bureaucracy. Questions about the government’s control over that Clerk are certainly live ones, and it does undermine the notion that the Senate is supposed to be getting more independent. Apparently, that doesn’t extend to its internal operations. Curious indeed.

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Roundup: Pallister’s dubious threats

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister is looking to talk tough with the federal government, essentially daring them to increase the carbon price that he’s instituting in his province with a threat to take the federal government to court if they do. This after Pallister’s government already explored the notion of taking the government to court over the imposition of a federal carbon price backstop in the first place, and deciding that it wasn’t something they could win. For reference, Pallister’s government says they’ll implement a $25/tonne carbon tax, and leave it there rather than raise it every year (the point of which is, of course, to drive businesses and consumers to make choices that mean paying fewer of these carbon prices), and Catherine McKenna is basically saying “That’s great, but if your price doesn’t increase in 2020 like it’s supposed to, we’ll charge the difference.” While Pallister is trying to stand with other small-c conservative leaders – most of whom aren’t yet in office – I’m really not sure where he thinks he has the legal footing on this one.

Why does this matter? Well, recall the Environment Commissioner’s report last week that was done in concert with provincial auditors general, and as Paul Wells points out in this excellent piece, they could demonstrate that it wasn’t just the Harper government not doing their part (as McKenna was so quick to focus on), but rather the provinces weren’t doing their part either – especially those who were talking a good game. Nobody is taking this seriously, and the ability to hit our targets gets further away. And in the midst of Wells’ excoriation of these political leaders and their big talk on the environment, he drives home the message that we can’t believe any of them. And he’s right. Which is why we can’t believe Pallister’s rhetoric in this either, as he claims that his province’s plan is better than the federal one, so they shouldn’t have to add the increased carbon tax as part of that. Sorry, but no. The common carbon price across the country is about more than just reductions as it is about preventing carbon leakage to other jurisdictions in the country (and possibly elsewhere, depending on how well its designed), and he should know that. But just like the federal conservatives playing cute with trying to insist that McKenna should be able to tell them exactly how many megatonnes a $50/tonne carbon price will reduce, it’s not how this works. A carbon price is not a scrubber in a smokestack – it’s a market mechanism that is supposed to drive demand and innovation, and it works in jurisdictions where it is implemented properly. It’s not just about a claim that their system with a lower price will be better, which is a claim we shouldn’t believe anyway. It’s time for everyone to play hardball with politicians and these promises, and that means more than just disingenuous questions or demands, but actual accountability for what mechanisms are supposed to do and how they’re being implemented.

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Roundup: Promising a new framework

The big news yesterday was Justin Trudeau delivering a major policy speech in the House of Commons about creating a new legal framework for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada that aims to fully implement the treaties that have not been properly enacted, and that will build toward self-governance by creating the capacity within individual First Nations and other Indigenous communities that will enable them to take up that governance space at their own pace. Trudeau insisted that this would not require constitutional change but would rather put some meat on the bones of Section 35 of the Constitution, and the existing treaties. And yes, criminal justice reform including how juries are selected was also part of the promise (and I’ve heard that we might see new legislation around that in March). Trudeau said that this announcement comes with a new round of consultations, but the aim was to have legislation tabled by the fall, with the framework fully implemented before the next election.

Reaction from Indigenous leaders is cautious so far, because there aren’t a lot of details – and there probably won’t be many until something gets tabled later in the year. The flipside of that, of course, is that there’s room and space for these leaders to give their input during the consultative process that is to come, seeing as Trudeau is promising to work together to develop this framework. There are other questions when it comes to lands and resources, which I’m not sure if this framework itself will cover or if the framework will guide how those issues are to be solved going forward, and that’s also likely going to depend on the cooperation of the provincial governments, but there does seem to be some momentum. That will also depend on Parliament moving this forward, and while the NDP seem to be onboard, the Conservative response to Trudeau’s speech warned about being too ambitious, which should probably be some kind of a warning signal. But it’s early days, and we’ll see how the next few months unfold.

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Roundup: Harder’s shrouded call for time allocation

Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” Senator Peter Harder is back at it again, reviving his terrible idea of a Senate business committee, and putting out a piece about how great it would be. Just imagine, he says – ensuring that there are fewer gaps between interventions on bills will mean that Canadians can follow the debate more easily! It will safeguard substantive debate! The unspoken issue here is that it won’t let someone, probably the Official Opposition in the Senate, to delay debates.

In other words, Harder not only wants a committee to time allocate all government bills in the Senate, he wants to delegate the authority to do this time allocation to a particular clique who will do the dirty work for him (because as we’ve seen time and again, he’s loathe to do the actual negotiation of debate timetables with the other caucus groups as it is). This should, of course, be concerning to everyone because the Senate doesn’t debate bills like the House of Commons does, nor should it. The way the rules are currently structured maximise the rights of individual senators to speak to any bill or motion before the Senate, and it gives them an opportunity to carefully draft responses to the matter that were just given before them, rather than, as the Commons does, simply have them draft generic speeches that will then be read into the record (unless you’ve got someone adept enough to speak extemporaneously for their allotted time, which happens not at all in the Commons, and very rarely in the Senate). There is no actual demonstrated need for this – there isn’t any kind of crisis of bills not passing the Senate, and the few bills that are being deliberately delayed are either private members’ bills (which Senate rules don’t allow for time allocation), or it’s because the newer senators haven’t learned the procedural tactics that are letting the Conservative senators take as many adjournments on debate as they can. It’s a temporary problem that Harder is misdiagnosing and is looking to wield a sledgehammer to fix, completely unnecessarily.

As I’ve argued before, any gamesmanship that the Conservatives are playing is leaving the Senate vulnerable to arguments like Harder is making to need these kinds of time allocation measures – and they should be aware that they’re making Harder’s arguments for him. But it’s an unnecessary proposal that Harder is making, and one that not only misunderstands how things work in the Senate, but it will have consequences and it will diminish, rather than enhance, the debate. But we have a rich tradition of tinkering with the rules and making things worse off as a result that Harder is playing right into.

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Roundup: Privilege case at the SCC

There is an interesting case being heard at the Supreme Court of Canada today, which goes to the heart of how laws are made in this country. An Alberta First Nation, the Mikisew Cree, applied to the Federal Court for judicial review of the 2012 Conservative budget implementation bill after its changes to environmental legislation didn’t consult them, per Section 35 of the Constitution. The problem? You can’t have the courts interfere with the legislative process. That goes to the heart of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers.

The Federal Court allowed a partial application, citing that they should have been given an opportunity to make submissions, but this was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal, which (correctly, in my view) cited that the Federal Court Act had no jurisdiction over the legislative process, and that it offended parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers, and there was an additional issue that this omnibus bill was of general application and did not apply specifically to this First Nation. The Supreme Court of Canada now gets to hear the issue and decide whether or not this should be the case in the face of the constitutional duty to consult.

While I’m sympathetic to the need to consult on these issues, particularly on issues that will affect their lands and ability to have engage with the processes that are created out of the regulator bodies that are engaged by the legislation once it is enacted, I do have a problem with the demands that any outside group be included in the drafting process. And while the current government has made a great deal of effort doing consultations before they draft bills (and there is no shortage of grousing as to how it slows down the process), there are usually plenty of opportunities to intervene once the bill is tabled and reaches committee hearings in both the Commons and the Senate. This is how parliament is supposed to work. Trying to short-circuit this has an effect on things like cabinet secrecy, and more likely, could grind the legislative process to a halt if you were dealing with a group that wanted to be obstinate. But also, it bears reiterating that parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers are not things to be trifled with, because it undermines the ability of parliament to do its work. While I’m confident that the Supreme Court will do the right thing, I do worry that this case has made it this far and could be victim of novel thinking that could do lasting harm to our institutions.

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Roundup: A new Chief Justice

The justice minister announced yesterday morning that the prime minister would be naming Justice Richard Wagner as the new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, thus both respecting the tradition of alternating between a Common Law and a Civil Law judge as the Chief, as well as picking an accomplished jurist who has 15 years left on the bench, ensuring that there is a long enough period of stability on the Court. Wagner is well respected in the Quebec courts, where he hailed from, and it is noted that he doesn’t really fit into the left-right divide – something that is not only indicative of our Canadian system, but is one of those things that people point to when they note how a Liberal PM can elevate a judge chosen by his Conservative predecessor.

A trip to the Maclean’s archives finds this piece by Paul Wells on the day that Wagner was named to the Supreme Court was also the day that Justin Trudeau threw his hat into the ring for Liberal leadership, and that both men had famous fathers in political circles. Tasha Kheiriddin notes the choice of Wagner is a safe one.

It’s also worth noting that Wagner also becomes Deputy Governor General with his elevation to Chief Justice, and he can grant royal assent to bills in the event that the GG herself is ill or absent; he opens Parliament before a Speaker is elected; and he will head the committee in charge of nominating people to the Order of Canada. The practice since 1939 also used to be that the Chief Justice would close a session of Parliament instead of the Governor General following some particular manoeuvring by Mackenzie King while the GG was out of town, until the government stopped with prorogation ceremonies. (If you ask me, they should restore the ceremonies, but with the GG doing them).

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Roundup: Morneau’s pabulum problem

Oh, Bill Morneau. After weeks of rough treatment, and the last week most especially, it’s no wonder that he was getting a bit testy when the questions kept coming up yesterday. That he snapped at a journalist just got our backs up because how very dare he, and so on. But it’s hard not to see how this is almost entirely a mess of his own making. Not just the fact that he didn’t divest his shares earlier, which make of that what you will – he was still within the law. I find myself ambivalent to the sanctimonious cries that he needs to appear to be whiter-than-white because that’s a Sisyphean task for which there will never be satisfaction short of being reduced to sackcloth and ashes, especially compounded by the oh-so-Canadian reflex of treating him like a tall poppy who must be brought down to size. The Conservative line that he’s a rich guy who can’t understand the woes of the working guy is certainly suffused with that narrative, but that’s also populism for you.

For me, the bigger problem is that so much of this is about the fact that it all goes back to this government’s particular communications problem of responding to everything with a spoonful of pabulum rather than taking their criticisms head-on. When the Conservatives launched into outright falsehoods about the proposed tax changes, Morneau didn’t fight back – he mouthed the same platitudes and shovelled more pabulum in our faces, and the myths metastasised until he was playing defensive when there was no reason for him to. That the CRA bungled their release of the folio on employee discounts just fed into this same problem, and again, the government couldn’t communicate their way out of a wet paper bag there either, sticking to the pabulum lines of not taxing the middle class rather than actually explaining that no, these are very specific circumstances that won’t actually capture retail workers. And given the current questions around his holdings, there are certainly better ways that he could have communicated decisions that were made (including why a blind trust would not have made sense, for example), or why the various conspiracy theories about how legislation or tax changes he’s proposing are apparently for the benefit of his company are patently absurd (because hey, attacking the messenger is always the sign that you’re on the winning side of the argument). But nope. Pabulum. And you would hope that maybe, just maybe, the government will learn that this is not the way to go about communicating, but I doubt it. They’ll probably hold tight and weather this manufactured outrage for another week or so until something else distracts the opposition, and the outrage cycle will start up again over something else, for which the government’s solution will be yet more pabulum. It’s tiresome from all sides. But this is what politics has devolved into.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne castigates Morneau for his poor judgment, while Colby Cosh thinks of him fondly as a great quasi-Albertan for using a numbered company registered in that province, paying taxes there and giving back to the province’s economy.

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Roundup: The good and bad of new Senate rules

The Senate adopted a change to their rules this week, which changed the definition of a caucus so that it no longer depends on being affiliated with a party registered with Elections Canada, but can instead be any nine senators who want to affiliate themselves. The immediate upside of this is that it formalizes the break between the Conservative and Liberal duopoly that has dominated the Chamber for much of its history, and will grant actual formal status to the Independent Senators Group that the majority of the crossbench appointments have affiliated themselves with. Breaking the duopoly is good, because some of the past abuses in the Chamber were enabled by it – why come down hard on the rules when you’ll be the one to benefit from them next, when it’s “your turn” after all?

But where things go from here is where things get a bit more fraught. Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader – err, “representative,” is pleased as punch by this development because it creates more independence that moves in line with his vision of a chamber without partisan affiliation, where he can then recruit and co-opt senators to his caucuses at will. The notion that it gives senators the freedom to associate themselves in whatever configuration they choose – and usually people’s first idea is on regional lines – is fraught because it takes apart the Westminster model of government and opposition, which is fundamental to our system of government. The ability to have a coherent opposition is an important one, and if the Senate breaks up into interest groups, that makes coherent opposition more difficult, and generally makes it more difficult to hold a government to account – especially if those interest groups start agitating for their own particular special interests rather than having a big enough tent to encompass a multitude of views and regional dynamics within it, like we do now. If we let the Senate devolve into a collection of interest groups, what does that do about its ability to hold government to account, or to actually push back against bad legislation in a coherent manner when it counts to do so? While there is room to grow in the Chamber to permanently fit three or four different caucus groups, we should beware having too many factions. If some of those factions should choose to remain partisan, that shouldn’t be discouraged either – politics is partisan, and the Senate is a political body. That it is appointed, however, means that in most cases, the partisanship is more muted because they aren’t vying for re-election, which is as it should be. But while there are positive outcomes from this rule change, we should keep an eye on it so as to ensure that it doesn’t become abused, especially by those who would exploit the lack of coherent opposition for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells has a good read on the Senator Stephen Greene ouster, and how the two approaches to dealing with this new independent Senate – charm from Trudeau, discipline from the Conservatives – isn’t really working.

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Roundup: Copping to privilege is not excusing it

Earlier in the week, Justin Trudeau was asked by VICE about the problem of people getting criminal records for pot possession when decriminalization is around the corner, and he related a story about how his late brother was once charged with possession and their father, with his influence and connections, was able to make those charges go away. And then the opposition went crazy with it.

Of course, Raitt is missing the point in that it wasn’t that Trudeau is endorsing one set of rules for the elites and one for everyone else. (Raitt, of course, is trying to use the “Trudeau is an elite and I’m just a Regular Girl™” line as her campaign platform, which is getting pretty tired). He’s acknowledging that the current system ensures that kind of outcome, which is why he’s looking to change it.

Thomas Mulcair, of course, couldn’t wait to rail about the “abject hypocrisy” of it all, and to repeat his demands that the government immediately put through decriminalization until legalization is sorted, as though this was something that the PM could just snap his fingers and do.

But no, that’s not how this works. Mulcair has been in politics to know this, which makes his concern trolling all the more disingenuous.

If you wanted a measure that could be implemented right away, then the provinces could opt not to pursue charges for simple possession (which I think is pretty much what is going on in most cases), because they’re the ones who have jurisdiction for the administration of justice and who can set their own prosecutorial guidelines. They could instruct their Crown prosecutors not to pursue simple possession charges – but that’s the provinces’ call, not the PM’s – again, making Mulcair’s calls disingenuous. Decriminalization also doesn’t serve the stated purpose of legalization, which is to regulate sale to keep it out of the hands of children and to combat the black market. But I’m sure we’ll be hearing about this for the next few days, unless the Trumpocalypse and the brewing trade war consumes the news cycle today.

Update: I am informed by lawyers that I’m on the wrong track, that the federal prosecution service deals with drug offences and that simple possession charges are still common among minorities and marginalized groups. So mea culpa on that one.

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