Roundup: Muddled takes on Charter rights

The bad takes on the government’s decision to stop giving summer job grants to groups that actively oppose abortions keep rolling in, with yesterday’s winner being one particularly mystifying piece that equates this to Christians being persecuted in ancient Rome. No, seriously. But probably the most overwrought objections are those which keep insisting that “there’s no Charter right to an abortion!” Err, no, there’s not. But when you try to take away that right, you trigger other Charter rights, most notably a woman’s right to life, liberty, and security of person, or the fact that discriminating against her ability to get a medical procedure does breach her Charter rights. University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen walks us through some of those considerations here:

Emmett Macfarlane also took to Twitter to try to clarify some of the arguments in this particular case.

This having been said, it should be reiterated that yet again, this government has not done a particularly stellar job in communicating this particular policy decision, especially in how they are fuzzily defining what is a “core mandate” that would disqualify them. It shouldn’t be difficult – is this an organization that is devoted to picketing abortion clinics, or counselling women against abortions under the guise of being a support service? No? Then you can get your funding. I also think that some religious groups are being a bit hyperbolic in their concerns, egged on by the likes of Andrew Scheer, who has been torqueing this issue (as he is wont to do with any issue) so that what’s actually at stake bears no relation to what it’s being characterized as. But that’s politics, apparently.

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Roundup: No knockout punch from Dawson

As expected, former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s appearance at the Commons ethics committee yesterday was a show for the cameras. Throughout the hearing, opposition MPs kept trying to get Dawson to insist that it was a big deal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules, and she kept rebuffing them, not giving them the clip that they were looking for. Because really, ever since former Auditor General Sheila Fraser remarked that the Liberals “broke every rule in the book” when it came to the Sponsorship Scandal, reporters and partisans have been trying desperately for another officer of parliament to give them a similar line (kind of like how everyone keeps looking for a “knockout punch” in a leadership debate that won’t ever come). Dawson also wouldn’t play ball when it came to the Conservatives trying to insist that the PM repay all of the costs of the vacation, and in fact seemed to defend some of them, so too bad for that attempted clip.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some value in the exercise. For example, while the PM and Dawson will dispute the extent of Trudeau’s friendship with the Aga Khan for the purposes of the Act, had she agreed that they were close personal friends, Trudeau would have been found to have contravened the Act in another fashion when he sat in on two meetings related to the Aga Khan Foundation (even though she didn’t find that he unduly influenced those meetings based on his relationship). Nevertheless, the “friends” exception in the legislation was cause for some level of debate and indeed consternation among MPs, but it’s something that Dawson thinks they might as well just get rid of in the statute.

And amending the Act was part of the discussion as well, both with regard to closing loopholes, and the discussion on penalties. Regarding loopholes, Dawson said that she needed to interpret that Morneau was within his rights to indirectly hold his shares in holding companies because she had previously recommended that said loophole be closed (and, shockingly, MPs ignored the suggestion). If she suddenly interpreted the legislation differently, that would have been a problem, hence her need to apply the law in a consistent manner. Regarding penalties, Dawson said that she feels that naming and shaming political figures is punishment enough, which didn’t sit well with MPs who wanted a sliding scale of penalties to demonstrate the severity of the offence. (Andrew Coyne also advocates “meaningful penalties” but won’t say what qualifies). The problem with this, of course, is that it turns any violation into a political circus as MPs fall all over themselves to demand the stiffest possible penalties for their opponents in order to score points, ignoring that the whole exercise is one designed for political consequences, which Trudeau has and continues to face. The other aspect is that greater penalties also create the conception that these are criminal sanctions, which the opposition has already been exploiting with language about how Trudeau “broke federal laws” to give the impression that he has committed a criminal offence (which he has not). Changing the rules to encourage this kind of demagoguery doesn’t help our ethics system in the slightest, and would probably do far more harm than good in the interest of scoring a couple of cheap points.

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Roundup: Phoenix transactions and rules culls

Public services minister Carla Qualtrough sent a letter to public servants apologizing for continued Phoenix pay problems as the number of backlogged transactions reaches 520,000. But that’s what I think needs to be highlighted here – these are transactions, not public servants being affected, which we don’t have a clear number on. Part of why there are so many backlogged transactions – and likely to be growing for the short term – is because the new collective agreements came into force, which add new complications to the ongoing transactions, so while those get sorted, the backlog may continue to loom large. Apparently, there was also a recent chance in how these were being addressed, so we’ll see how much of an effect that has on the outstanding transaction total.

Meanwhile, public service union PIPSC is calling on the government to cull the number of convoluted pay rules that are currently clogging the system, but this is one of those issues where I’m not sure that they may be a wee bit disingenuous. PIPSC maintains that it’s all Treasury Board’s fault that there are so many rules, because they’re the ones who ensure there are all of the exceptions around overtime or acting status, and so on, and that they should be the ones to do the cull. But as Kathryn May points out, there is a reluctance to do this, even by means of special negotiations, because the unions are very touchy about any particular changes that they might see as rolling back any employee’s rights or benefits. And if you don’t think the reluctance is real, if memory serves, the last public service strike happened when the government wanted to phase out some old classifications with few employees in them, and the unions balked. (I also seem to recall that the deal they ended up getting was possibly worse off to save these obsolete classifications, which soured many of the public servants that I knew on the whole thing). So yeah, there are problems with the vast number of pay rules in place, and that has certainly had a detrimental effect on the whole Phoenix pay system, but I think that if the unions aren’t engaging in any self-reflection over this, then that may be adding to the problems.

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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: Presenting Her Excellency

Yesterday was the big day, and Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette was installed as the Canada’s 29th Governor General in a ceremony that involved more than a few nods to the Indigenous people, and a lot of music – numbers and artists that surprised many.

As for Payette herself, her installation speech was twenty minutes “from the heart” no script, no notes, and in a dynamic storytelling style about her personal journey, and what she hopes to accomplish in her time as the Vice Regal representative in Canada, drawn from her perspective of seeing a borderless planet from orbit. It also gave a hint about what she may see as her priorities as GG, which will involve promoting STEM (especially for girls), and about helping people unlock their potential by having the right support systems behind them. Personally, I would say that this speech was far beyond anything we’ve seen from the post in more than the past seven years of Payette’s predecessor, and that I believe will serve us well.

Meanwhile, the National Post looked into just what a Governor General does all day, in true Tristin Hopper style.

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Roundup: Not another special committee

And so the filibuster over potential changes to the Standing Orders rolls on, with no end in sight. Opposition House leaders presented an open letter yesterday calling for a new special committee to examine the issue with an eye to ensuring that it only comes out with recommendations achieved by consensus, but I’m not sure how bright of an idea that really is. After all, they’ll demand that it be composed in a similar manner to the Electoral Reform committee (to be faux-“proportional” and to get buy-in from the Bloc and Elizabeth May, naturally), and they’ll spend months and months hearing all kinds of expert testimony about how great parliamentary or legislative rules are in other countries only to doubtlessly come up with some the same kind of non-consensus that the ERRE report did, that every party will walk away from.

Bardish Chagger isn’t backing down, incidentally, and keeps insisting she wants a dialogue but won’t commit to consensus, probably because a) the committee look into making the Commons more “family friendly” wound up being a bust – which is for the best, really; and b) because she wants to try and fulfil the half-baked election promise about doing some kind of parliamentary reform, never mind that no reform is actually necessary of the kind that she’s proposing (with the exception of restoring prorogation ceremonies – that one we do need).

But I will reiterate yet again that our problem is cultural. Looking at rule changes won’t fix the underlying cultural problems, and this will be just another months-long waste of time when what all parties need to be doing is getting back to the core of Westminster parliamentarianism, and doing the sensible things of banning scripts and speaking lists, throwing out the time limits that obligate MPs to fill the time rather than engaging in spontaneous debate, and actually taking the legislative process seriously, which means ending the insane (and inane) focus on endless Second Reading debate. Repeating the ERRE exercise for the Standing Orders is just a black hole to be avoided, and all parties should back away from this fight (especially the Liberals).

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Roundup: Term limit nonsense

As we gear up for the Conservatives’ policy convention this weekend, one of the policy resolutions on the table is term limits for the party leader, which they propose to cap at eight years should the leader become Prime Minister. While this is an example of the grassroots showing some displeasure at Stephen Harper and his stranglehold over the party for well over a decade, it’s a terrible bit of Americana that people keep trying to import into our system as though it were a panacea to problems that exist here. They’re entirely wrong, however, but they keep trying. Over in the National Post, John Pepall argues that term limits are fundamentally undemocratic because they prevent people from having the choice of electing a popular leader for as long as they like, but while he has a point, I would stress that term limits in a Canadian context are a complete lack of understanding of our system of Responsible Government, which rests on the principle of confidence. After all, term limits are largely unnecessary because our system can dump a prime minister at any point by means of a vote of no confidence – something that can’t happen in the American system, as they don’t have a system based on confidence, but rather on defined terms, with the relief valve of recall elections in some cases. Otherwise, they are forced to wait out a term until the next election, while in a Westminster system, it can happen with a snap vote in the Commons. Of course, we do have the problem in this country particularly around being able to dump a leader who is not the PM because we have moved away from the caucus selecting the leader, to systems of either delegated conventions, one-member-one-vote, or the latest Liberal abomination, the “supporter category.” Caucus selection kept leaders accountable to them, and it kept them in check, whereas they accumulated more presidential powers as the base that elected them grew larger and they felt more empowered by their “democratic mandate.” While leaders can still lose membership reviews by party members (witness Thomas Mulcair), a caucus can still pressure a leader to resign these days by simply making their dissatisfaction public. In most cases, like with Alison Redford, all it takes is a couple of MPs/MLAs with enough of a spine to go public, and the leader sees the writing on the wall. In cases where the leader digs in their heels – as with Greg Selinger in Manitoba – it can become the death knell for that particular government, as we witnessed in that province’s election just weeks ago. But all of these upsets were accomplished without term limits, and respecting the principles of Responsible Government. Trying to graft on Americana will just turn our system into some kind of monstrous chimera that won’t actually be able to function – hell, the changes we’ve made to leadership selection processes so far have already damaged and warped our system and need to be undone. But if Conservative Party members want to actually respect our system of government, they’ll vote down this cockamamie policy proposal with extreme prejudice, and hopefully we won’t have to speak of this again.

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Roundup: A curious silence

After a long weekend of seeing waaaay too much social media abuse hurled at Ruth Ellen Brosseau regarding The Elbowing, and both the Liberals and Conservatives coming to her defence, I am struck that no NDP MP has come forward to take any responsibility for the apocalyptic rhetoric they hurled at the Prime Minister on Brosseau’s behalf that she is now being blamed for, even though she didn’t actually say anything other than to acknowledge that yes, she was elbowed. Also, I remain bemused that people continue to muse about Justin Trudeau’s “anger management issues” and temper when it was Thomas Mulcair who exploded into a rage ball as it all happened, which forced MPs around to separate him physically from Trudeau. Also, amusingly, an Ontario newspaper took the Beaverton fake news article about the NDP showing up the day after The Elbowing in wheelchairs and neck braces as being true. So there’s that. Meanwhile, we’ve got a week for tempers to cool and to see if the House Leaders can come up with any kind of schedule regarding the remaining legislation that needs to be passed while ensuring the opposition feels they’ve had enough time to debate the assisted dying bill, while also noting that it looks like Parliament will sit extra late this year as the Senate contemplates those bills with likely amendments, and keeping in mind that President Obama is due to address a joint session of Parliament on June 29th – which is after the June 23rd date that the Commons was supposed to rise for the summer.

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QP: Narratives and process

While there was already drama in the Commons earlier in the morning as a government bill barely survived a tie vote, by the time QP rolled around, it was a bit more sedate. Justin Trudeau was in Montreal for an award presentation, and Rona Ambrose was elsewhere, which left Denis Lebel to lead off. He raised the new guidelines around advertising, but wondered why Trudeau was still in a Discovery Canada ad. Brison reminded him that the ad in question was not a paid ad, and thus did not apply. Lebel asked again, and Brison switched to English and hit back about the previous government’s record. Lebel switched to English to ask again, and got the same answer. Andrew Scheer asked again, and raised the self-promotion narrative before demanding do know that no government funds were used in the ad. Brison read out the policy, and suggested that Scheer rethink his questions. After another round of the same, Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, and thundered about the “scammers” in KPMG. Diane Lebouthillier insisted that there were codes of conduct in place and that no one gets special treatment. Mulcair thundered again in French, got the same answer, and before Mulcair thundered about Montreal infrastructure funding. Amarjit Sohi insisted that funding was on the way as consultations were underway. Mulcair asked again in English, and go the same.

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Roundup: The Sophie Grégoire Trudeau problem

The issue of assistants for Sophie Grégoire Trudeau has become a bit ugly in social media, and overblown in the political arena while opposition parties on both sides of the spectrum try to cast the prime minister’s family as being these out-of-touch elites (some of it completely speciously, as the Conservatives try to equate Trudeau’s statement about not needing government funds for childcare and suddenly billing for nannies was hypocritical, despite the fact that he wasn’t the leader of a G7 nation before), because if there’s nothing that this country loves, it’s cheap outrage. And really, that’s what a lot of this is, combined with some garden variety sexist expectations that she should be a doting wife and mother in the home, taking care of meals and childcare on her own without any public profile. But before we delve into it further, a couple of important reminders.

Seriously, for the love of all the gods on Olympus, stop calling her the First Lady. We don’t have a First Lady in Canada because we have a royal family, and the closest equivalent – aside from Prince Philip as the Royal Consort – is the somewhat antiquated term of the Chatelaine of Rideau Hall.

No, this is completely wrong. We don’t elect governments or parties in this country. We elect 338 MPs, who come together in a parliament that forms a government. So in essence, we did elect the family that came along with the MP who was able to form a government.

And this really is the important point. We have a constitutional monarchy so that the royal family takes on the ceremonial and celebrity functions and prevents the Head of Government from becoming a cult of personality. Unfortunately, in this age of media and social media, where the Trudeaus are consider bona fide celebrities in their own right, it has created a kind of cult of personality (which is only worsened by the fact that the fact that Trudeau was elected by a nebulous “supporter class” means he is accountable to nobody and he knows it). So when the public comes looking for Grégoire Trudeau to do speaking engagements and to do the kind of celebrity outreach that members of the royal family do so well in the UK (but certainly less so here because of their relative absence), how are we supposed to react? What expectations do we put on her as the spouse of the Head of Government, who has no defined role? While I have no objections to the nannies or single assistant (Trudeau is prime minister of a G7 country, and demanding that his spouse do all of the domestic work is frankly odious, particularly given her diplomatic expectations), I find myself torn about the need for additional help. I have no doubt that she needs it, because she has chosen to parlay her celebrity toward charitable causes. And it’s less about the taxpayer’s money that rubs me the wrong way, but the fact that this is getting uncomfortable under our system of government and constitutional traditions. That we have a prime minister who has formed a kind of cult of personality is very uncomfortable, but it’s not a problem with an easy solution, short of insisting that members of the royal family start spending more time on our shores to do the work of the celebrity face of our constitutional order. Is the solution to have the party pay for her added assistants? Maybe. Or to charge speaking fees on a cost-recovery basis? One can imagine the howls out outrage that an “elite” is charging charities money already. There’s not an easy answer, but the discomfort around the larger problem of where our system is headed is something that we should be talking about. Unfortunately, that conversation is being drowned out by cheap outrage and the June and Ward Cleaver crowd, which is only making this whole exercise reek.

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