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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Roundup: Housakos vs Harder

It took a couple of weeks, but I will say that I was encouraged to read that Senator Leo Housakos was in the press pushing back against Senator Peter Harder’s comments that the Senate hasn’t been implementing changes to its processes as recommended by the Auditor General. As chair of the Internal Economy committee, Housakos has corrected the record to point out that yes, a lot of changes have happened (and in fact were happening since long before the now infamous audit happened), and also hit back at the issue of an audit committee. Harder it seems has bought into the AG’s wrong-headed notion that an external audit body be formed, which I will reiterate is absolutely an affront to parliamentary democracy. The Senate is a parliamentary body, and parliament is self-governing. It needs to be, full stop. Making senators answerable to an outside body puts a stake in the ability to be self-governing, and pretty much says that we don’t deserve to be a self-governing country anymore, and should just hand all of the power back to the Queen. That Harder can’t see that is blind and a little bit gobsmacking. While the Senate does plan to announce an audit body soon, it will be of mixed composition, and if they’ve paid attention to Senator McCoy’s proposal to mirror the House of Lords’ body – basically three senators and two outside experts – then we’ll be fine. But make no mistake – such a body must be majority senators and be chaired by a Senator. Otherwise let’s just start the process of shuttering parliament, and no, I’m not even being dramatic about it.

While we’re on the topic of the Senate, I just wanted to give a tip of my hat to now-retired Senator Nancy Ruth (who was on Power & Politics yesterday at 1:49:00 on this link). Nancy Ruth (that’s one name, like Cher or Madonna) was one of my early entry points into political journalism, when I came to the Hill writing for GLBT publications like the now-defunct Outlooks and Capital Xtra. As the only openly lesbian parliamentarian, and the only openly LGBT member of the Conservative caucus who wasn’t media shy, she was my point of contact into that caucus and that particular political sphere. The relationship I built there gave me my first by-line for The Canadian Press, and I eventually moved into more mainstream outlets. She was an absolute joy to cover, and I will miss her terribly.

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Roundup: A bit of NDP Kremlinology

On New Year’s Day, the leader of the provincial NDP in New Brunswick resigned and quit the party altogether, citing party infighting, and more curiously, took a few swipes at the federal party along the way.

Why is this interesting? Because the federal NDP are in the midst of a leadership race that will double as some soul-searching about the party’s direction. This while the leftist parties in the States saw the “success” of Bernie Sanders (and I use the term loosely but his followers are totally serious about it), and the selection and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, where there is a definite shift in tone that follwos these leaders. And with that in mind, we saw a series of tweets from former federal NDP (and prior to that, UK Labour) staffer Lauren Dobson-Hughes which helps to put the New Brunswick and general NPD dynamic into context.

What Dobson-Hughes says here I think will have a lot of impact on the NDP leadership contest, and I think explains a little as to why the party wasn’t willing to give Thomas Mulcair another chance in his leadership review post-election. It’s also what the (eventual) leadership hopefuls will be navigating, so I don’t think this is the last of the internal power-struggles in the party that we’ve heard of. And while Cardy’s critics continue to grouse about him in the media, there are tensions at play that we should be cognisant of, and that will matter as the party goes forward.

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Roundup: Harder’s wrongheaded impatience

Our good friend Senator Peter Harder is at it again, going to the media about his frustrations that Senate modernization isn’t going his way. The current complaint is twofold – one, that they haven’t adopted all of the Auditor General’s recommendations; and two, that the rules allow for senators to delay debating bills for lengthy periods. So, let’s break it down.

First of all, the AG’s recommendation that the Senate require an external audit committee to provide some kind of “external validation” was a Very Bad Recommendation. I’ve argued this time and again, and I’ll say it again right here – the Senate cannot be put under external oversight because parliament is self-governing. This is a very important consideration that the AG doesn’t understand. I don’t care how many government departments and private companies use this external validation – they are not parliament and parliament is self-governing. That means that the Senate must police itself, no matter how much the AG seems to find that to be a problem (and considering how very little his audit found for how much it cost, as problematic and arbitrary as it was). And yes, an audit committee is an idea that could include external members but must have a majority of members from the Senate on it, non-negotiable. If Parliament cannot govern itself, then we might as well just declare that the past 148 years of Responsible Government were just a failed experiment and we might as well tell the Queen to take over and rule us directly again. I’m not even kidding. If Harder can’t grasp this fundamental concept, then that is a problem.

The other point, about delays, is as much Harder’s own failing as Government Leader – err, “government representative” than anything. If government bills need swift passage, he needs to make the case to the Senate, and if there are delays, then he has tools at his disposal including time allocation, which he must again, make the case for swift passage. And there are a lot of bills that the Senate does dispose of relatively quickly, particularly because the Commons likes to dump them on the Senate shortly before Parliament rises for either the holidays or summer, and implore that they get passed post-haste, and most of the time, they are. And just like with the Senate’s veto, there are sometimes cases where delay is warranted for any number of reasons, including that it’s a bad bill (such as the single sports betting bill in the previous parliament). The Senate is not a rubber stamp; changing the rules to force them to be more “disciplined” in how they debate is seriously close to curtailing the privileges of parliamentarians to suit the government’s agenda. Parliament is there to keep a check on the government, not simply nod everything through. This is one more piece in the concerning pattern that Harder is looking to make changes to an institution that he doesn’t understand and will cause lasting damage if he’s not reined in.

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Roundup: For fear of Mary Dawson

It was a day of juvenile finger-pointing as the big headline from the Globe and Mail was that the Ethics Commissioner said that she plans to speak to Justin Trudeau and Bill Blair about allegations that certain fundraisers may have breached conflict of interest laws, based entirely on innuendo from the Globe (which then gets repeated in Question Period, and that gets written up, and when the Globe adds another new piece of unproven innuendo the next morning, the cycle starts over again). Trudeau’s response? Bring it on – I’ve done nothing wrong.

So where are we? Because I’m not sure at this point. Do we insist that the PM and ministers no longer fundraise? Because that’s happening is that the party is capitalising on their “celebrity” for higher-level fundraisers, which is basic economics. They’re more in demand, so you send them to the higher-priced fundraisers. Should they be disallowed because someone would try to talk to them about their particular hobby-horses? As though they wouldn’t if they met them in the grocery store or on the street? Because I’m not sure that it’s actually lobbying activity, despite the label that has been slapped onto it by the bulk of the media and the opposition, looking to score some points on this. Does this mean that the whole of cabinet should be encased in these bubbles where nobody can talk to them? If the fear is that they get “exclusive” access, the government is quick to point out that they’ve accused of consulting too much and that there are plenty of other opportunities. If the worry is that it’s because they’re rich that they get access, again I’m not seeing the issue because you’re not buying influence for $1500. “Oh, you’re buying good feeling and they’ll think to pick up the phone and call you the next time something comes up” is the latest excuse I’ve heard, and I rolled my eyes so hard that it almost hurt. Honestly? Especially with the accusations that they’re buying the influence of “good feelings” donating to the Trudeau Foundation, which the PM severed his connections to and which provides scholarships? And if the charge is that because many of these rich business people are of Chinese descent, again, I’m not actually seeing any real issue here. They accuse one businessman of donating who had interests in canola that the Chinese government restricting and then Trudeau got it resolved. Conspiracy! Err, except that was the concern of every single gods damned canola farmer in this country so singling out one Chinese-Canadian starts to smack of veiled racist sentiment.

Once again, I’m waiting for someone to show me where there’s smoke, let alone fire. I mean, other than that sickening smell of people who’ve lit their own hair on fire over this. And I would be willing to bet that Mary Dawson is going to shrug and say “they haven’t broken any rules, but I want you to turn over more power to me” like she does all the time.

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