Roundup: Tuition trade-offs

If you’ve paid any attention to the NDP leadership race, you’ll know that the classic issue of free tuition has been bandied about with wild abandon, but no more enthusiastically than by Niki Ashton as she tries to bring Bernie Sanders-like excitement to the topic. The problem? That she’s ignoring some of the realities of the promise, for which Alex Usher took her to task over the Twitter Machine over the long weekend.

What Usher demonstrates here is that while it’s all well and good to promise free tuition, it comes with trade-offs, which is the reality in the countries where it is offered, and which Ashton refuses to discuss in her statements. You can’t give free tuition to everyone while maintaining the same level of access and quality instruction or institutions writ-large. There are other non-monetary resources that are finite, which this facile “free tuition is the solution!” boosterism ignores, and should be discussed if this is to be a seriously discussed issue and not just a vapid slogan, borrowing from American discourse without acknowledging the differences in Canada as so many of the Bernie Bro slogan appropriation has been.

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Roundup: Bills left unpassed

While the House of Commons may have risen for the summer on Friday, they did so with an unusual number of bills waiting to pass third reading, not to mention the fact that Bill C-7 on RCMP unionization is heading back to them after the Senate amends it (and those amendments have passed at the committee stage and are awaiting third reading vote). What is most unusual to me is the fact that C-7 was another bill that was in response to a Supreme Court decision that also was granted an extension, and still managed to miss its deadline and remains un-passed. Now, the government is prepared to allow it go un-passed through the summer, despite the fact that while it was under consideration on the Commons side, they insisted they couldn’t make substantive amendments to the bill because of the deadline. That deadline has passed, and they are willing to now let it go through the summer, the sense of urgency suddenly evaporated? How? It makes no sense. And looking at the other bills that they haven’t passed yet, there are two that are both awaiting Third Reading and could have passed if they’d sat for an extra couple of days: C-2 on their vaunted income tax changes, and C-4 on undoing the Conservatives’ changes to labour rights. Why they’re letting these languish through the summer – particularly C-4, which keeps some pretty onerous regulations for labour unions on the books – is frankly mystifying.

I will say that the mood in the Commons was strangely exhausted by the time Friday rolled around, when they hadn’t even been doing late-night sittings up to this point in order to get things passed an off to the Senate (often with the expectation to get those bills passed as well before rising themselves). In fact, normally by this time, MPs are outright feral, and the tone in the Commons could generally be compared to jeering, hooting baboons. Mind you, we had The Elbowing and that associated drama a few weeks ago, and as someone remarked to me the other day (and if I could remember who you were when I had this conversation, I would credit you), they basically peaked too soon this year. And that very well could be. It still makes no sense that they would leave these two bills on the Order Paper waiting for final debate, or not waiting for C-7 to come back from the Senate. But then again, there have been a lot of questionable choices made this spring, so perhaps we should chalk it up to more of that.

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Roundup: A test of bicameral wills?

Whether through stubbornness or pique, the House of Commons voted to adopt nearly all of the amendments the Senate proposed to Bill C-14, with the exception of the biggest and most important one – the one which would eliminate the requirement of a “reasonably foreseeable” death before someone could be granted medical assistance in dying. And then, the Commons more or less announced that tomorrow will be their last sitting day before they rise for the summer, essentially daring the Senate to return a bill to a chamber that has gone home (well, they are supposed to come back on the 29th for Obama’s address), and leaving the spectre of there being no law in place, which has all manner of medical community stakeholders concerned (never mind that the framework of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision is in place and would ensure that nobody would be charged for providing the service). It’s a little more ballsy than I would have given the Liberals credit for a few weeks ago, particularly before I saw the background paper that Jody Wilson-Raybould released with her…questionable justification for drafting the law the way it was. Now comes the difficult part – will the Senate stick to their guns and insist that the amendments to eliminate “reasonably foreseeable” be maintained if the bill is to remain constitutional, or will they back down because they’ve made their point and the Commons is the elected chamber?

This is the part where I chime in with a few reminders that this is the reason why our Senate exists the way it does – it enjoys institutional independence and cannot be threatened by the Commons so that they can push back on bills they find unconstitutional, particularly a controversial one like this, where MPs are proving themselves to be timid in the face of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that lays out what they deem to be an appropriate constitutional reading of the issue – something the government is basically flouting in an attempt to push back on this bit of social evolution for as long as possible. And as I’ve stated before, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Commons is waiting for the Senate to “force” them to advance things. Will it turn into a ping-pong between the chambers? Not for much longer, I would say, but it is going to depend on who blinks. If the Senate does dig in its heels on this and insist that doing otherwise would be to let an unconstitutional bill pass, then there is every reason to suspect the government take the “forced into this” option and let the Senate be the punching bag when religious and disability groups complain. There are people suggesting that the Supreme Court should break the impasse, which I would loudly denounce because it’s the very last thing we need. It’s not their job, and it would signal a complete abdication of the rights of Parliament and Responsible Government that our predecessors fought long and hard for. (Also, stop demanding these bills be referred to the Court – legislating is not a game of “Mother May I?”). This whole exercise is why the Senate exists. Let’s let them do their jobs.

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Roundup: Skirting the Charter

It was a late-night sitting in the Senate to deal with more amendments to the assisted dying bill, and in the end, amendments that would include advanced directives in the bill were defeated. Part of the debate was that more time was needed to study the issue, and the mover of the amendments, Senator Cowan, made the very trenchant point that while the bill mandates the government to study the issue within 180 days of passage, there is no guarantee that they will do anything with it other than issue a report that will gather dust, because as we’ve been exploring lately, MPs tend to be rather spineless and because this is a tough “moral” issue, they will refuse to discuss it until forced to by the courts. Again. Meanwhile, a background paper on the bill was released by the justice minister that stated that they didn’t need to strictly follow the Supreme Court’s Carter decision because they were trying to articulate new principles about trying not to normalise suicide among the elderly and disabled. It seems to me that this is the very same logic that the previous government employed in their crafting new prostitution laws, which went around the very issues that the Supreme Court dealt with (the safety of sex workers) and tried to craft legislation that was inherently denunciating rather than which tried to put in place a better regime. That has yet to be challenged in the courts, but it is coming. In this particular case, it does seem like an attempt by the government to try and circumvent clear direction by the Supreme Court on how they have interpreted the Charter in this instance, as Carissima Mathen points out below, it’s not like they can simply say “new law!” and pretend that the existing Charter jurisprudence doesn’t exist, because it clearly does. Is this the way that this government purports to deal with the constitutional dialogue with the courts and push back against them? Maybe. But it also seems like they are flirting with a bill that is unconstitutional to try and keep themselves from pissing off too many interest groups, be they religious or the disabled community, despite the fact that there seems to be clear interest from Canadians that they want this kind of law in place (and in particular, advanced directives if you believe what senators say they are getting in terms of the feedback from Canadians). Of course, they could very well find themselves “forced” by the Senate to provide enough political cover (which I still think is a very distinct possibility), but I am getting the sense that we are now seeing the “campaign from the left, govern from the right” sensibilities starting to emerge in this current Liberal government.

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Roundup: Unrest without modernization

Oh, look – it’s the Senate bat-signal, shining one last time for me this year. Here we go: Senators Greene and Massicotte, who have been trying to organise some internal reforms to the Chamber, are warning that if modernisations don’t happen within the caucuses that they may see more defections from frustrated Senators, and swelling the ranks of Independents – particularly relevant with more senators on the way chosen by this new process (though nothing says that all of these new senators will sit as Independents, or that they won’t opt to sit in one of the two existing caucuses). Many of the reforms that the two are proposing are pretty modest – electing chairs and vice-chairs of standing committees, replacing Question Period with “Issues Period,” electing caucus officers, televising Senate proceedings; larger communications budgets to promote the Senate and its work (particularly committee reports); and electing the Speaker. Some of these are already in the works, like televising/webcasting procedures, which will happen in a year or two, once they get the technology sorted. Similarly, work to reform Senate Communications has been ongoing, and will continue, and I’m sure no one will argue that more money would help. Some of them – electing caucus officers – already happens in the Senate Liberal caucus, and sounds like is starting to happen in the Conservative ranks. The issue of committee membership is a topic that is currently being debated, and no doubt work will be undertaken on this in the Senate Rules committee, where it will start getting hammered out because the growing number of Independents does make this a priority issue for them. Some of the ideas, however, are more problematic, such as electing the Senate Speaker. Why? Because the Senate Speaker is actually the titular Head of Parliament; it makes sense for this to be a government appointee as a result, and because of this titular position, it comes with diplomatic and protocol responsibilities. Having the Senate elect their own that could be in opposition to the government of the day would be a serious problem, which few people seem to be grasping. As for “Issues Period,” I find it to be the weakest suggestion, particularly as asking questions of committee chairs a) is already possible, and b) doesn’t happen often because there’s not a lot to ask of them. As I explained in my piece in the National Post last week, Senate Question Period is about holding government to account, and with there being no Conservative Atlantic Canadian MPs in the Commons, it gives those Atlantic senators an opportunity to play that role. Or rather, it would if they had someone to hold account. In the absence of that, the Senate loses out on one of its functions, which will become a problem, and it’s something that “Issues Period” won’t solve.

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Roundup: Warning about possible Senate frustration

There’s the Senate bat-signal, so here we go again. On Evan Solomon’s radio show, Liberal Senator David Smith suggested that if Trudeau does not appoint a Government Leader in the Senate that it will create frustration in the Chamber if they have no means by which to hold the government to account, and that they could – if it got that far – start to stall or even vote against the government’s legislation as a protest. Mind you, as these things do, the headlines hype it up, but it does point to problems that I outlined in my National Post piece earlier this week. And because I know that some people have suggested it, no, just calling ministers before committee is not enough as it robs the daily exercise of accountability that is Senate Question Period of meaning (as Smith suggested), and those appearances might happen every couple of months. The existing protocol is for the Government Leader to have access to the same briefing books as the Prime Minister. If senators are to do their job of sober second thought and accountability, they need access to information on a timely basis, and the government leader, if he or she can’t provide that answer immediately, takes it under advisement and gets a written response as soon as possible. They have a job to do and they need information to do it. The threats over the past couple of weeks, as overhyped as they have been, have awakened Andrew Coyne’s concern trolling over the Senate’s veto powers, because he apparently doesn’t believe they should have enough power to push back against a majority government when necessary, and would rather the courts do it years down the road. Meanwhile, Senate Speaker Housakos has said that he plans to propose the creation of an arm’s length spending oversight body to give guidance to the Internal Economy Committee, but we have no details on this yet. I would once again caution that we need to ensure that the Senate remains self-governing for the sake of parliamentary supremacy (argued here). I would still like to see Senator McCoy’s proposal for a Senate audit committee comprised of three senators, an auditor and a former judge as the best solution, but I guess we’ll wait to see what Housakos’ proposition is.

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Roundup: Honesty in deficits?

Balanced budgets and deficits continued to be a topic of discussion on the campaign yesterday, and it will continue to be so today as Justin Trudeau is set to unveil his infrastructure plan to boost the economy, which seems set to include some deficit financing for another year or two as the economy appears stagnant. Stephen Harper warns the other parties are looking at “permanent deficits,” but it bears reminding that according to the previous Parliamentary Budget Officer, the only way that Harper killed off is own structural deficit was in changing the health transfer escalator, leaving him with only a cyclical deficit (which persists, no matter how much they shuffle money around on paper to cover over it). The NDP continue to insist they won’t run a deficit, but they also seem to dispute that they would need to continue austerity and they would even do things like restore the health transfer escalator, which starts to boggle the mind. The Liberals seem to be looking to score points for honesty in that a) they don’t know the true state of the books, and b) the global economic situation, but one might also add that our debt-to-GDP ratio is in a good place now (as opposed to the eighties and nineties), so small deficits won’t affect our economic health that much. To that end, Mike Moffatt says it’s important to ask parties how they would manage deficits, because they are inevitable in the current economic climate, while Andrew Coyne says that we should be paying attention to the signals being sent by the leaders when it comes to deficits.

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Roundup: Fill in the blanks

None of what happened with the Amherst branch of the Royal Canadian Legion announcement yesterday was out of the ordinary or unexpected, but it was one giant confirmation of what we are seeing daily in the debasement of our politics. Conservative MP Scott Armstrong mistakenly sent out a press release that still had all of the track changes, and it showed very clearly that it was a fill-in-the-blanks job. Because gods forbid an announcement was made that wasn’t pabulum. Pretty much all political speech has become this – checklists of talking points that need to be ticked off in whatever the context. Giving a members’ statement? Here are the talking points you need to say – or better yet, here’s the fill-in-the-blanks statement we’ll hand to you. Going on a panel show at 5 o’clock? Here are the lines you can deliver, and the slogans you need to recite. The funny thing is, I’ve met MPs who’ve gotten media training – which they paid for out of their own pockets – and they can do without all of this box-checking, blanks-filled-in pap that they would recite otherwise. But those MPs made the choice to not do what their fellows were doing, and proved they could speak on their own without sounding like a babbling idiot. But most MPs don’t take the time to learn how to speak in public, or in the media, or how to write a speech on their own. It’s mostly just a handful of veteran MPs who can do it these days, and that doesn’t bode well for the future seeing the number of incumbents who aren’t running again. Unless MPs start to do something about their own situation – or better yet, voters demand that they do – we’ll wind up with a parliament of MPs reading more of these scripts like robotic simpletons.

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Roundup: Bemoaning members’ statements

Over in the National Post, Tristin Hopper despairs at how much of Hansard is taken up by ridiculous and ultimately meaningless members’ statements, not to mention the plethora of petitions. And while the notion of members’ statements used to be kind of sweet and noble, it’s largely degenerated into a daily dumpster fire in the Commons, with a handful of feel-good statements followed by a number of increasingly nasty partisan attacks. Petitions, however ridiculous many may be, is a measure of political engagement so we shouldn’t discount them just yet – and we’re about to see a whole bunch more of them now that they’re going to all electronic petitions. Hopper suggests we follow the European example and put Members’ Statements at the end of the day. I tweeted some thoughts on that.

Bottom line: Pretty much all of Parliament is terrible right now with speeches because we’re electing a cohort who has largely lost the ability to think for themselves on their feet, whose greatest skill now is reciting the lines that are given to them. (Not all are like this, but most are, and I will note that the Liberals seem to be the least scripted from the leaders’ office these days). While I can sympathise with Hopper, it’s not the rules that are the problem – it’s the fact that we have apparently stopped valuing MPs who can speak or think for themselves in favour of ciphers for the leader.

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Roundup: The problem with Duffy’s defence

Day one of the Duffy trial, and we saw two things – the Crown laying out a case, including a bunch of evidence that was made available to the media, that showed a pattern of abuse by Duffy when it came to the claiming of expenses, such that he was claiming per diems on the day his appointment was announced, never mind that he wasn’t even sworn in yet, and that he was using one contract to a friend as a slush fund for things the Senate wouldn’t pay out. The crux is common sense – no reasonable person would make these kinds of claims. The defence, meanwhile, is arguing that the rules were so loose that it’s not Duffy’s fault, and everyone else in the Senate is doing it. I have a problem with that because no, everyone else is not doing it, and it breaches the good faith that Duffy should have been exercising from his office. Much of it stems to the very fact that Duffy should never have been appointed as a senator for PEI, but when Stephen Harper made that decision, Duffy didn’t live up to his end of the implicit deal. In conversations that I have had with those who used to work in the Liberal Senate Leader’s office back in the day when they formed government, if they were to appoint someone who didn’t currently live in the province that they were to represent, they ensured that they had their ducks in a row beforehand. This meant that the person was told they were being considered for an appointment – and if they told anyone, that wouldn’t happen – but in the interim they had to ensure that they had the driver’s licence, health card, election registration, licence plates, the works – taken care of beforehand. In Duffy’s case, it would likely have meant selling his home in Kanata and ensuring he had one in PEI that he could access year-round rather than a summer cottage, while maintaining either an apartment or a small condo near the Hill as his secondary residence. It’s really a no-brainer, but Duffy apparently wasn’t able to comprehend that and allegedly looked for as many loopholes as he could to maximise what he could claim. Every other senator I have ever spoken to, including some very long-time ones, is aghast at that kind of behaviour, and they do their utmost to minimise what they claim. I am also dubious about this “conspiracy” to “force” Duffy to repay claims that he may have been able to make legitimately – but remember that there were always political considerations at play, and even if some of those claims were legal, they would not have been politically sound and Duffy should have known this from the start. His cries of victimhood ring hollow, but he looks to be set on trying to win the trial on pure technicalities. Nicholas Köhler has his observations here, while the Ottawa Citizen’s Gargoyle shows some of the behind the scenes moments from the day.

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