Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

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Roundup: Unifying the prohibitions across departments

The federal government has issued new guidelines for foreign intelligence likely obtained through torture, so that it now covers the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada. This means that they are prohibited from using such information, except if it’s going to save lives either from an imminent terrorist attack or protecting Canadian troops on an overseas mission. This appears to harmonize direction handed down earlier to the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA, so that all national security agencies (which are now under the same parliamentary oversight regime and will soon be under an independent arm’s length national security oversight regime) will have the same rules and restrictions. For some, it’s reassuring that the government is taking the issue seriously, but for others, the caveat isn’t good enough, and they need to issue a full prohibition, no caveats, no exceptions, full stop. Stephanie Carvin has more reaction to the announcement here:

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Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

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Roundup: One is less than five

As the whole Bill Morneau issue continues to run on outrage fumes, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s office has been unhelpful in the least when it comes to trying to put this issue to bed. Two days ago her office said that “fewer than five” ministers held assets indirectly, and when this came up in QP on Wednesday, Trudeau confirmed what certain journalists had noted from the public disclosures – that it was Morneau and Jody Wilson-Raybould, who had since divested those shares. End of story. But no, then Dawson’s office responded to reports in the Globe and Mail that they were somehow “at odds” with the PM over just how many ministers were in such a situation (The Globe? Sensationalize something? Unbelievable!), and that one – Monreau – qualified as “less than five.” And that set the Twitter Machine ablaze, and turned QP in the gong show that it was of demanding to know which five ministers it was, despite the fact that this had already been answered on numerous occasions.

Yes, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics legislation is a mess that MPs refuse on a continual basis to do anything about when the issues are pointed out. Yes, Mary Dawson herself has largely been seen as unhelpful because she has had a tendency to read her mandate so narrowly that issues brought before her are deemed out of her purview. But as I’ve stated before, it’s rapidly turning into a job that nobody else wants, and given the very narrow criteria for a new one, it’s no wonder that the government is having a hard time filling the post, and we may be stuck with Dawson forever as a result.

 

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Roundup: Is there meaning to staff changes?

The Hill Times had an interesting piece out yesterday about staffing changes into and out of the PMO, and what it says about the culture of central control in the Trudeau-led government. While some of the commentary from former Conservative staffers about the marked similarities could be seen as trouble-making (and indeed, I’m not sure that we are quite at the level of central control that was exerted under the Harper years), I do think there is a kernel of truth in there which may simply be a reflection of politics in the 21st century, which is heavy on message discipline in order to deal with the pressures of a media apparatus that was not as strident as it was during the days of cabinet government of yore. Add to that, the increasingly horizontal power structures mean that the mere act of governing is not the same as it was during those days, so the ways in which the practice of government has evolved should be a consideration.

Nevertheless, the movement of this staff is quite likely indicative of more than just the usual cross-pollination that takes place over the course of a government, and the concerns about rookie ministers needing more hand-holding are probably not unfounded, and there have definitely been some stories of certain ministers having chronic staffing problems that can’t be dismissed out of hand. Nor can former staffers’ concerns about movement being based on connections over ability be shrugged off either, though one has to wonder if it was ever always thus, and it just manifests itself in slightly different ways today than in the past. In all, while I disbelieve the notion that the Trudeau PMO is just the Harper PMO redux, I will agree that there are probably a few more similarities than either would like to admit to openly.

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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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