QP: Here’s how your riding benefitted!

A rainy Wednesday in Ottawa, and all of the leaders were once again in the Commons, awaiting QP — three days in a row! It’s been a long time since that happened. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading a stilted condemnation of Bill Morneau. Justin Trudeau reminded him that they have an Ethics Commissioner to protect the integrity of the institutions. Scheer insisted that it only works when they disclose, as the villa was not (not entirely true — the villa was disclosed but not the ownership structure), and Trudeau reiterated that they have confidence in the Commissioner. Scheer tried to press on when he learned about the villa’s ownership corporation, and Trudeau reminded him that they have a habit of attacking officers of parliament. Scheer accused the government of “hiding” things from the Commissioner — not really true — and then demanded to know if the Ethics Commissioner was advised of Morneau’s recusals, and Trudeau offered the lecture on the importance of opposition and why it was important to have a Commissioner that was above that. Scheer demanded to know if the Commissioner was advised before Bill C-27 was tabled, and Trudeau reiterated that they work with the Commissioner constantly. Guy Caron was up next, leading for the NDP, and read out statements that Trudeau made about leadership and accountability during the Harper era, and accused him of not living up to his word. Trudeau insisted that he has raised the bar with openness and transparency, and after a second round for the same in French, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet repeated much the same question in French. Trudeau reminded the House about their move for proactive disclosure that the NDP balked at. Boutin-Sweet repeated the question in English, and got much the same reply.

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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: No more gimmicky rules

In her latest installment of her occasional “Dear Process Nerd” column series, Kady O’Malley takes on the subject of heckling, and offers a sympathetic answer about the frustration of MPs who can’t get a word in edgewise given the way in which debates and QP are structured to all but discourage actual debate. And she’s right – that is a very serious problem that we should address. The problem? The solutions that she offered were not solutions.

As is so often the case with people who are looking to reform the system to improve the obvious deficiencies, the instinct is always to implement some new gimmick, and my learned friend is no different in this regard. In this case, O’Malley notes that we should give MPs more time to meaningfully engage with legislation (go on…) but decides that the answer lies in rejigging the daily schedule for un-structured, open-interaction with things like quizzing specific ministers on subjects or Urgent Questions.

And this is the part where I heave a great sigh, because my learned friend as completely missed the mark.

When you identify a problem, you shouldn’t go looking for a new gimmick to try and counterbalance it – you should go looking for the source of the problem and solve it there. In this case, it’s the way in which we started regulating speaking times in Canada so that when we imposed maximum speaking times, we incentivised MPs to use up that whole time. That meant speeches that went up to 40 minutes, then twenty, and the ten minutes allotted for questions and comments wound up being just as rote and scripted more often than not because MPs no longer know how to debate. So why not just tackle that problem instead? Restore the old rules – abolish speaking times and speaking lists, have the Speaker gauge how long MPs should have to speak to a bill or motion based on the number of MPs who want to speak to it, and allow for interruptions for questions in a free-flowing manner, and above all, ban scripts so that MPs will be engaged in the subject matter, talking for probably eight to ten minutes, ensure that there is free-flowing debate throughout, and most of all, it eliminates the impetus to read speeches into the record. Just tacking on new rules and gimmicks has made the situation worse over the years. Strip that away. Get us back to the fundamentals. That will help bring about actual change.

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Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.

For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.

Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).

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Roundup: Neglecting a vital institution

Of the things that vex me about our current government, their tacit endorsement of republican sentiment in this country is high on my list. The fact that they have allowed the Conservatives to take up and politicise the monarchist space in the Canadian landscape is shameful, and the fact that they have allowed the position of Canadian Secretary to the Queen to lapse is just one more sign of this particular antipathy. For all that he professes his affection for Her Majesty, Justin Trudeau seems to have a pretty difficult time reflecting that in his government’s particular decisions, and we will pay the price for it. That the work of arranging royal tours and being the link to Buckingham Palace is being left to the bureaucrats in Canadian Heritage is not a good thing. Everything I have heard about the job they do is not only that they are plagued with incompetence when it comes to the actual work of dealing with the Canadian Monarchy, but the tacit acknowledgement of my sources that those very bureaucrats charged with the responsibility are themselves republicans is hugely problematic. That they are the ones offering advice to the government is a very big problem. And that Trudeau appears to be neglecting this very important relationship is worrying. I know that there are monarchist Liberals in the ranks, and I hope very much that they can start to raise a fuss about this, because it’s a very worrying road that we are now on, and this kind of neglect can do lasting damage to our most fundamental institution, which we should all be very concerned about.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had an exit interview with Governor General David Johnston, and brought up the issue of debating abolishing the monarchy. Johnston, bless him, pointed out that the countries that most satisfy the needs of their people tend to be constitutional monarchies, so we’ve got that going for us.

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QP: Local businesses for local people

With Justin Trudeau off to the United Nations for the rest of the week, we weren’t expecting fireworks, but rather the continued caterwauling about the proposed tax changes, that are sure to doom the whole economy. Andrew Scheer led off, worried about what the tax changes would do to “local businesses,” coincidentally the very new campaign that his party has launched. Bill Morneau reminded him that the changes were about ensuring that the wealthiest Canadians couldn’t use these mechanisms to pay less tax. Scheer talked about two local craft brewers who were “middle class,” and Morneau quipped that he was sure that Scheer was happy to defend the wealthiest Canadians. Scheer wondered how many jobs these measures would create, but Morneau stuck with his points. Alain Rayes then picked up the line of questioning in French, and Morneau insisted, in French, that he was listening and would ensure that the system was fair. After another round of the same, Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, worried that th government was looking to do away with the “bilingual bonus” in the public service, to which Dominic LeBlanc assured him that they would ensure a bilingual public service. Mulcair pressed in French, and got much the same response. Mulcair moved onto the topic of Canadians being barred from entering the US post-marijuana legalisation, to which Ralph Goodale reminded him that we can’t dictate to the Americans who they let into their country. Mulcair then asked about cannabis edibles, and Goodale assured him that work was ongoing.

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Roundup: Arnold Chan and his parliamentary legacy

News was delivered yesterday morning that Liberal MP Arnold Chan has succumbed to cancer and passed away earlier that morning. The news is a blow for Parliament, as Chan was a very decent and well-liked MP who was serious about the dignity of the institution. Back in June, he delivered a speech in Parliament that was viewed at the time as a bit of a farewell (which he insisted that it wasn’t), in which he implored that his fellow MPs not only demonstrate their love of Parliament, but that they demonstrate it by doing things like ending the reliance on talking points.

At the time that Chan made the speech, I wrote a column about its importance, and why more MPs should heed his words. Scripts and talking points have been suffocating our parliament and our very democracy, and it gets worse as time goes on. That Chan could see their inherent problems and try to break the cycle is encouraging, because it hopefully means that other MPs will too. It’s one of the reasons why I hope that as part of honouring Chan’s legacy, MPs will work to do away with the rules in the Commons that have led to the rise of canned speeches, and that we can get to a place where debate is no longer a series of speeches read into the record without actual exchanges, and where MPs actually become engaged in the material rather than just reading the points that their leaders’ offices handed their assistants to write up for them. Parliament should be more than that, and let’s hope that others follow Chan’s lead.

Here are some more remembrances of Chan by his colleagues.

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Roundup: Butts/Bannon brouhaha

Tongues were set wagging in the Nation’s Capital yesterday when The New Yorker claimed that Justin Trudeau’s principle secretary, Gerald Butts, had struck up a friendship with Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, of Breitbart fame. Apparently, Bannon sees Butts as the left-wing version of himself, or something, and Butts allegedly told him that there’s nothing more populist than a rich guy raising taxes on the wealthy. And while everyone clamoured for some kind of confirmation out of PMO, getting non-denials from official sources, and “it’s just business” from the less official sources, none of the Canadian stories that I read stopped at the part where the New Yorker piece claimed that Trudeau reversed a polling slump by pushing through these tax measures. While I will readily admit that most polling stories give me hives, especially two years out from an election, I can’t for the life of me recall this having happened – Trudeau’s poll numbers have remained stubbornly high, and only really dipped a little when Andrew Scheer won the Conservative leadership, because at that point there was an actual face that people could put to the poll questions (never mind that questions related to which leader one would vote for are illegitimate given our system of government). Trudeau putting forward these tax changes were the first piece of legislation that they tabled, and while it took a while to actually pass (during which time a budget had also been tabled and passed), it had no actual effect on his polling numbers. Where the New Yorker got this particular tidbit is mystifying to me, and why Canadian outlets didn’t call bullshit on this – and subsequently look side-eye at the other claims in the piece – is similarly baffling.

Of course, the story would not be complete without Thomas Mulcair coming out to theatrically demand that Butts disavow this “friendship” given all of the drama around racism and white nationalism in the States over the past few days. The problem of course is that a) Butts is not an elected official, and b) there are NAFTA talks underway, and it would be really bad form for our government to so blatantly thumb our noses at the Americans in this way. Keeping a working relationship going would seem to be the most prudent course of action – but that never seem to be the course that Mulcair advocates.

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Roundup: A sudden demand for subsidies

Something that went largely unremarked yesterday was a somewhat bizarre press release that Andrew Scheer put out, bemoaning the lack of cellphone coverage in one region of Quebec, and then wondered why the government had all kind of money to spend on other things but not this, and then lumped it in with softwood lumber and Supply Management as a Quebec priority.

https://twitter.com/journo_dale/status/889841610665730048

While the fact that the Conservative leader was in essence demanding subsidized cellphone coverage in one particular region is strange in and of itself, it should be a reminder that this is no longer a party of actual fiscal conservatism – it’s a party of economic populism that just happens to chant about balanced budgets for the sake of it. To be certain, this is the first time I’ve seen cellphone coverage being listed as a top priority from Scheer or the Conservatives, and as many of my Twitter followers pointed out, there are plenty of places in this country with poor or non-existent coverage, especially along the TransCanada highway – somewhere one might expect that it might be some kind of national priority. But I’m also curious as to what exactly Scheer proposes to do about it that government deficits aren’t taking care of – language that seems to imply that they’re not simply going to demand that companies provide this coverage through regulatory means. Add to that, they were in power for almost a decade and did nothing about these kinds of coverage gaps, so it makes one wonder why it suddenly became a priority unless it just happens to be somewhere that Scheer is hoping to pick up some votes. Crass politicking? Perish the thought!

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Roundup: Imagining something we already have

Two different reality shows have been made pitches about televising the renovations to 24 Sussex, and some of their reasons for doing so are frankly appalling. On the one hand, one can see the temptation of such a project, both in terms of the drama, the fact that the constant conversation and hate-watching would drive the ratings, or the possibility of some form of public accountability where people would see on their screen what their millions of dollars of tax dollars are paying for (and before you say anything else, I am very dubious about that  $38 million figure being thrown around, because it likely involves a bunch of security bells and whistles that the RCMP have thrown into it that may not actually be necessary but are a bunch of “nice to haves” while they’re blue-skying). And while that’s all well and good, one of the proponents, Lynda Reeves went and put her foot in it.

We already have our “White House equivalent,” and that’s Rideau Hall. It’s where the Head of State resides when she’s in the country, and where her representative lives and conducts his work. And I know that this may be hard for someone like Reeves to grasp, but the prime minister is not a president. He is the head of government, the “first among equals” of the Cabinet, and most emphatically not the head of state. He may have an official residence, but he doesn’t require the equivalent of a White House because his job is not the same, and he has two official offices – one in Langevin Block, and the other in Centre Block (with a temporary replacement being constructed in the West Block as we speak for the decade where the Centre Block will be out of commission). He doesn’t need a live-work space like the White House is.

It’s this kind of intellectual and cultural laziness that is the exact same as people who refer to Sophie Gregoire Trudeau as the “First Lady” when she very much is not. We don’t have a First Lady or a First Family because we have a monarchy, and those roles belong to the Royal Family. The closest thing we have to a “First Lady” other than the Queen (or Prince Philip if you want to qualify the spouse of the Head of State in such a role) is actually the Chatelaine of Rideau Hall, which is the title given to the spouse of the Governor General when the spouse is a woman (which I suppose would be châtelain when the GG is a woman with a male spouse).

So no, Lynda Reeves, we don’t need a symbol similar to the American White House because we already have one. And if we want Canadians to have an image in mind when they close their eyes and imagine what the equivalent is, there are plenty of photos to choose from. Here’s one:

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