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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Roundup: A ham-fisted trap for the Senate

While Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” Senator Peter Harder continues his tour of sympathetic media (the latest being the CBC), crying about how the Conservatives are holding government legislation “hostage” and how he needs to have the rules of the Senate changed, he and his team have been doing everything they can to destroy what collegiality exists with the Senate through ham-fisted procedural moves of their own.

The bill in question is C-4, which is the stated repeal of anti-union bills passed by the Conservatives in the previous parliament, and naturally they would be putting up a fight, tooth-and-nail, to keep their old legislation. Not surprising, but also a doomed fight. The bill was on track to pass the Senate this week, when Harder’s deputy, Senator Bellemare, announced that they would be calling a vote on it before Thursday, claiming that they had the support of all senators to do so, when in fact they didn’t. Reminder: the bill was on track to pass, as the Conservatives had exhausted their abilities to delay it. By pulling this manoeuvre, Bellemare basically sabotaged the working relationship between the caucuses in order to maybe shave a day or two from the bill. Maybe. Rather than letting it go through, she (and by extension Harder) turn it into a fight over procedure and sour feelings. Why? So that they can turn around and whine some more to the media that the political caucuses in the Senate are not working with them and are being obstructionist, therefore “proving” that they need these proposed rule changes that Harder wants. Harder, meanwhile, gets to look like he’s the victim and just trying to be reasonable when he’s the one who hasn’t been negotiating with the other caucuses this whole time.

What gets me is just how obvious he’s being about it. Well, obvious to someone who knows what’s going on in the Senate, but most people don’t, and he’s keen to exploit the fact that the general public – and indeed most journalists – aren’t paying attention, and he can use that to his advantage. None of their actions make sense if they actually wanted a working relationship with other senators and to try and get those bills they’re suddenly so concerned with (despite the fact that they have done nothing so far to try and move them along), which makes it all the plainer to see that this latest effort has nothing to do with trying to get bills passed in the Senate, and more to do with changing the rules in order to advantage his position.

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Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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Roundup: Earnest Scott Simms

As is becoming a daily occurrence, we have yet another voice weighing in on the Standing Orders debate, and this time, it’s the mover of the motion that’s causing so much Sturm und Drang in the House of Commons (and the Procedure and House Affairs committee) right now – Scott Simms. Simms, I believe quite earnestly, insists that we need to give reform a chance, and he lists all of the wonderful things he hopes to happen out of Bardish Chagger’s discussion paper, and I believe he’s earnest because he has recently co-edited a book on parliamentary reform with noted notoriously wrong-headed would-be reformers Michael Chong and Kennedy Stewart.

Of course, nothing in these proposals will fix what ails parliament, and will only create more problems than it solves. We’ve established this time and again, and I’ve written a book to this effect, but the problems are not structural. MPs, however, don’t necessarily see that because they’re trapped in a sick and dysfunctional parliamentary culture and looking around for fixes, they see some levers that look easy to pull, never mind that those levers will make things worse. Digging into the underlying cultural problems are harder to see and do, and that’s why MPs have been assiduously avoiding them, but we shouldn’t let them get away with it. Granted, it would be far more helpful if more members of the media could see that fact as well and not get lured by the shiny reform ideas that keep getting floated around, followed by the drama of the outrage, which is all too easy to get sucked into. Because who doesn’t love drama?

So with all due respect to Simms, no, the time for being open-minded about these reform ideas has passed. We’ve lurched from one bad reform idea to another for the past half century (century if you want to count the granddaddy of all disastrous reforms, which the Liberals promulgated in 1919 when they changed the leadership selection process) and things haven’t gotten any better. It’s time to take that hard look at where things are situated, and means slapping MPs’ hands away from those shiny, easy-looking levers. It’s time to have a meaningful re-engagement with the system, and nothing in these discussion paper ideas does that. In fact, it does the opposite.

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Roundup: Butchered applause lines

Now that the French “debate” has passed, it looks like today is the day that Kevin O’Leary will announce his candidacy for the Conservative leadership – something most of the other candidates will probably welcome given that it will divert everyone’s attention from the embarrassing debacle that was the “debate,” and I do use the term loosely. As with previous events in this contest, there was no debate, just a line-up of talking points, only this time it was mostly in mangled French, some of which was utterly incomprehensible.

Not to say that there wasn’t some artificial drama during the horror show. Kellie Leitch in full butchered French and Steven Blaney both had their sight set on Maxime Bernier and attacked him out of the gate (while Erin O’Toole, in very slow sentences, pleaded with them not to fight), and for the first 45 minutes at least, all anyone could talk about was supply management, before the moved onto softwood lumber – because apparently dairy and forestry are Quebec’s only two industries. And then when it came to questions of national security, it was all manner of fumbled pearl-clutching (and it was like you could watch them grasping for that strand of pearls and missing it every time) as a number of them insisted that they were for immigration but wanted to ensure that they weren’t letting in terrorists. Brad Trost decided to go full-Trump and declare that we ban immigration from “pro-radical Islamist” regions (but don’t worry, he doesn’t hate all immigrants – he married one!).

If you’re looking for a professional evaluation of everyone’s proficiency in French, CBC assembled an expert panel to grade everyone, and based on my own personal observations, Lisa Raitt did better than most expectations (but was still mostly reading her responses), and Chris Alexander, for all of his other weaknesses in this race, had one of the best grasps of the language of any of them. Rick Petersen, the other also-ran who doesn’t have a seat, also had a really great grasp of French and was one of the only people speaking off the cuff – doubly impressive given that he’s an Anglo and not Francophone. And as for Deepak Obhrai, people keep saying “points for trying!” or “At least he showed up, unlike O’Leary!” well, there were actual times when he was just uttering phonetic gibberish – and pointing while doing it.

But, as Martin Patriquin writes, none of this is going to matter after a few hours today because once O’Leary is in the race, none of it is going to matter.

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