Roundup: Reheated economic policy

Andrew Scheer came out with his first economic policy plank yesterday, and it was pretty much a tepid reheated policy of the Harper era that plans to be packed into a private members’ bill at some point this parliament. The idea is a “tax credit” for parental EI benefits – because Harper-era Conservatives loved nothing more than tax credits, and tax credits are the loophole in private members’ bills that let them spend money without actually spending money, because the rationale is that they’re reducing income rather than raising revenue, but if I had my druthers, I would see that loophole closed because a tax expenditure impacts the treasury just as much as an actual spending programme does. Add to that, tax credits are generally not tracked by the Department of Finance, so their ongoing impact is not reported to Parliament, nor is their effectiveness really tracked either – and yes, there is an Auditor General’s report from a couple of years ago that states this very problem with them.

And add to that, this announcement is yet another sop to the suburban family voter that the Conservatives want to try to recapture from the Liberals. Of course, like most of the plans of the Harper era, the tax credit structure doesn’t actually help a lot of the families who need it, and the benefits tend to go towards those who make more money in the first place, which one suspects is why the Liberals’ Canada Child Benefit was seen as a more advantageous plan to that same voting demographic that Scheer wants to target. And don’t take my word for it – here’s Kevin Milligan and Jennifer Robson to walk you through why this isn’t a well though-out plan from an economic or policy standpoint.

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Roundup: Lagging CBSA oversight

A report commissioned by PCO advises for the creation of a new oversight body for both the CBSA and the RCMP, given the amount of overlap between the two bodies when it comes to law enforcement. Currently, CBSA has no civilian oversight, though its national security functions are just now getting some oversight under the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, and those functions would likely fall under the creation of the new intelligence commissioner created in Bill C-59 – but those don’t deal with the day-to-day interactions at the borders, or with some of their other functions, like immigration detention.

What the Canadian Press story doesn’t mention is that there is right now a Senate bill sitting on the Order Paper, which passed the Senate unanimously, to create a CBSA Inspector General. In fact, it passed in October 2016, and has been sitting there ever since, as no MP has bothered to sign up to sponsor it (which is unusual in the extreme). More unusual is the fact that Ralph Goodale had previously signed up to sponsor the version of the bill that was being debated in the previous parliament, but now that he’s public safety minister, he’s become much more gun-shy, saying that they need to do more consultation and will come out with their own bill. But almost a year-and-a-half later, it’s still sitting there, when it could be amended by the government to make whatever technical fixes they deem necessary and swiftly passed. (I last wrote about this for the Law Times a year ago).

Of course, if they wanted to go that route, the government would need to give the bill a Royal Recommendation and put in implementation language into the bill – something that it currently lacks to get around the requirement that it can’t spend money. In other words, it’s a framework but nothing more at this point. But if the government were serious about oversight for CBSA, they could do something to ensure that it happens expeditiously. But that commitment to oversight seems to be a bit more academic at this point, given that they haven’t moved on this in all this time. And that should be mentioned in these more recent stories, but haven’t been.

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Roundup: Demands for MP parental leave

Some MPs are looking for changes to the Parliament of Canada Act in order to better accommodate parental leaves, given that they have no provision for them, and MPs start getting salaries clawed back if they miss more than 21 sitting days. (Mind you, records of those absences aren’t made public, so we have no way of checking). And while I’m sympathetic to the notion that there is no parental leave, I find myself sighing because there is this constant need by MPs and the press to describe Parliament as a “workplace,” and try and ham-fistedly force a number of hackneyed comparisons to justify it.

No. Parliament is not a “workplace.” And MPs most certainly are not employees.

I understand that it’s a job that’s not the friendliest for new parents. And I get that there is this desire to get younger voices into parliament, and there is a need to facilitate them, which is great. But I get very, very nervous every time MPs start talking about how they want to start changing things to make the place more “family friendly,” because every time they’ve done that to date, they’ve made things worse. Eliminating evening sittings to be more “family friendly” had a devastating effect on collegiality because MPs no longer ate together three nights a week. Now they’re looking to avoid coming to Ottawa altogether, instead appearing by videoconference instead, and no doubt they’ll demand to be able to vote remotely as well. And that is a bridge too far.

When you get elected, it’s to do the job in Ottawa. Work in the riding is secondary to your role as an MP, and that role is to hold government to account. Meeting constituents, while good small-p politics, is a secondary consideration to your duties. And the added danger in appearing remotely is not only a further breakdown in what remains of collegiality, it’s that the lack of facetime with other MPs and with witnesses who appear at committees means that there is no ability to forge connections or have off-script conversations, which are the lifeblood of politics. You need to show up to do the job. Your job is to be in Ottawa to vote and be seen voting, and to attend debate and committees. You knew that when you ran for office, and you knew that when you decided to have a child while in office. Trying to do this job remotely means that soon every MP will start to demand it, until the Commons is reduced to a small cadre of people there to fulfil quorum while everyone else attends to the “very important business” in their ridings.

The other point is that these MPs are not lacking in resources when it comes to finding childcare solutions – they are very well compensated, and can afford options that most Canadians can’t. That does matter in the equation, and why my sympathy has its limits.

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Roundup: An historic apology

As promised, Justin Trudeau delivered a long-awaited apology for those LGBT Canadians who had been persecuted and hounded out of jobs in the civil service, military and police forces as a result of government policies, and to go along with this apology will be some compensation. (The speech and video are posted here). As well, a bill was tabled that will expunge the records of anyone caught up in these processes, but as Ralph Goodale explained on Power Play, the bill requires an application as opposed to the government doing a blanket action, and won’t cover some of the other charges such as being a found-in during a bathhouse raid. That could set up for an interesting future legal challenge, for the record.

So who does this apology affect? Some examples heard yesterday include Diane Doiron, who spoke to Chatelaine about her experiences, or former sailor Simon Thwaites, who was on Power Play.

While some may dismiss the rash of apologies from the Trudeau government as “virtue signalling” or being soft, history shows that official apologies tend to come more from conservative sources than liberal ones. Aaron Wherry, meanwhile, notes that while the Conservatives did participate in yesterday’s apology, they have been making a lot of political hay of late trying to show themselves in opposition to those who would “denigrate” the history of Canada, or who constantly find fault with it rather than praising it uncritically. And yes, it is an interesting little dichotomy.

Those who say that the apology doesn’t go far enough, pointing to the ongoing blood donation ban facing gay men who have had sex in the past year (note: this is a change from the previous lifetime ban) still hasn’t been lifted as promised, the government did put in research dollars to ensure that the proper scientific evidence is there to lift it permanently. While critics say that this remains discriminatory, I remind you that previous governments had to pay dearly for the tainted blood scandals of the past, which is doubtlessly why the current government wants to ensure that all of their bases are covered and untouchable legally in the event that any future lawsuits from this change in policy ensue.

Regarding those Conservative absences during the apology:

During the apology speeches in the Commons, I and several others noted that there were a number of conspicuous Conservative absences – some 15-plus vacant desks, all clustered in the centre of their ranks, which looked pretty obvious from above (and this matters when you’ve got the galleries full of people who have come to hear the apology). I remarked on this over Twitter, and it created a firestorm, especially when I highlighted the vacant area on the seating chart. Some of these absences are legitimate – some MPs were away on committee business, and I got flack from some of them for that afterward, feeling that it was a cheap shot, and if that’s the case, then I do apologize. It wasn’t intended to be, but it was pointing out that the giant hole in their ranks was conspicuous, especially as this was not the case during QP, which immediately preceded said apology. I will also note that none of the Conservative staffers who monitor my Twitter feed (and I know that they do, because they constantly chirp at me by claiming I’m too partisan in my QP-tweeting), offered up a correction or explanation until hours later, which I would have gladly retweeted if provided one. They did not. I can only work with what I can see in front of me at the time, and if some of those MPs who were there during QP went to fill the camera shots on the front benches, that’s still a poor excuse for leaving a giant hole in the middle of their ranks that the full galleries can plainly see.

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Roundup: Economic update choices

The fall economic update was released yesterday, and while the rapid pace of economic growth has meant more revenues and a smaller deficit, it also means that the government isn’t going to put too much more effort into getting back to balance anytime soon, keeping the focus on reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio instead (which is going down faster). Instead, finance minister Bill Morneau insisted that they would be “doubling down” on investing in the middle class, mostly by indexing the Canada Child Benefit to inflation earlier than planned, as well as enhancing the Working Income Tax Benefit (and I will note that this part of his speech seemed to be one where Morneau acknowledged that singletons existed and needed a hand up too). There was some additional programme spending in there as well (for more, the National Post outlines eight things in the update).

While the economy is growing at an enviable pace, it could put the government and the Bank of Canada in a bind as the need to start withdrawing stimulus measures comes to the forefront, and deciding whether fiscal or monetary policy should make the first move. There is also a marked shift between last year’s update and this year’s in that the focus is moving away from longer-term goals to short-term ones (and that could be political reality setting in). Critics accuse the government of using the update to try and change the channel on the recent headlines around Bill Morneau’s assets and disclosures, while Andrew Coyne gives his signature scathing look at the choices of the deficits, and around the rapid growth in government spending.

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Roundup: No constraints, please

After Kady O’Malley suggested last week that the Senate adopt some kind of formal mechanisms to prevent the Senate from indefinitely delaying private members’ bills so that they die on the Order Paper, Senator Frances Lankin wrote this weekend that as much as she wants to see some of those bills get passed, she has no desire to adopt any mechanisms that would constrain debate in the Senate. And while I’m sympathetic to O’Malley’s point to an extent, I think Lankin has it right – and it’s good that she said something, because a lot of the newer senators look to her for guidance given that she is a senator who came into the job with previous legislative experience. The reasons why those bills can face delays are varied, but sometimes it’s legitimate that they do, and I think it would be a mistake to put in a mechanism that would essentially force those bills to be passed – especially as that would create an incentive for governments to start trying to pass difficult agenda items as PMBs (as the Conservatives tried to do on more than a few occasions when they were in power).

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Todd Doherty took to YouTube to bully senators into passing his private members’ bill. This is one of those kinds of stories that bothers me because nowhere in the piece does it mention who the sponsor of the bill in the Senate is, nor does it try to reach out to them to ask them about state of the bill and what efforts they are taking in order to see it passed, and that’s a detail that matters. If it is indeed waiting to come up for debate in committee, that’s not out of the ordinary considering that usually committees are bound to deal with government legislation before they deal with private members’ bills, and they’re the masters of their own destiny. Never mind that the bill itself is of dubious merit – these kinds of PMBs that demand “national strategies” for everything under the sun, no matter how worthy the cause, tend to be little more than feel-good bills that have little impact other than moral suasion, because they can’t oblige a government to spend money, and they figure that demanding a national strategy will push a government to take action. They don’t, but it’s all about optics, and Doherty is really pushing that optics angle.

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QP: Defence policy concerns

While Monday attendance is usual for the PM, he was nowhere to be seen today, instead meeting with Muslim leaders from around the country. Rona Ambrose led off, worried that the Trump administration would be able to see Canada’s defence policy before Canadians would. Harjit Sajjan said that because the policy was determined in consultation with allies, it made sense for them to see it first. Ambrose accused the PM of meeting with Americans in secret over it, and Sajjan reiterated that it was done with broad consultation and be fully costed. Ambrose turned to Wynn’s law, complaining that the government gutted it (despite the fact that the legal community was not in favour of the bill). Jody Wilson-Raybould said that they felt for Wynn’s widow and supported the principles of bail reform, but the bill didn’t pass muster. Ambrose accused her of looking out for the interests of lawyers instead of victims (as though it’s not lawyers navigating the new problems the bill would create), but Wilson-Raybould reiterated her response. Ambrose’s final question was to demand support for her bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges. Wilson-Raybould was non-committal in her response, just talking about the importance of the issue. (Note that after QP, the government voted to ram the bill through without further debate). Matthew Dubé led for the NDP, worried about the possibility of tolls and service fees for projects funded out of the Infrastructure Bank. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him that they could leverage investment while freeing up government dollars for things like shelters and housing. Rachel Blaney railed about the risks associated with the investments, and Sohi noted pensions funds that invest in infrastructure in other countries, while they were trying to get those dollars to stay in Canada. Blaney then demanded guarantees for fair treatment at the US border (as if that will work for the Americans), and Ralph Goodale said that any incidents should be reported so that they had a statistical record but so far the figures were on the decline. Dubé reiterated in French, and Goodale told him to follow up on individual cases with his office.

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Roundup: An unexpected reversal

So, after the somewhat unexpected reversal of last night, I looked back to something from the past few days to help explain this bit of insanity that we’ve all witnessed. Michelle Rempel heard this from Republican officials late last week when she asked them how this all happened:

Here’s a look at what a Trump presidency is going to mean for Canada:

As the numbers tightened, we saw this going around:

Meanwhile, a reminder about the underlying attitudes:

I’m going to wait before I can have much else to say about the power of nativism, and this “drain the swamp” ethos that has taken over so much of the rhetoric in the campaign, and the part that civic ignorance feeds into the politics of resentment that in turn fuels this kind of thing. But wow.

I will say how glad I am once again to live in Canada, with a constitutional monarchy and a system of Responsible Government, with a Supreme Court that isn’t partisan, and with a neutral civil service. Because we’re probably going to be reminded about how important that is in the next few years.

Good reads:

  • Justin Trudeau will be stopping in Cuba and Argentina on the way to the APEC meeting in Peru, and everyone is recalling his father’s frienship with the Castros.
  • The government has named a five-person panel to make recommendations regarding overhauling the National Energy Board.
  • Here’s a look at the latest round of Order Paper questions, with questions on alcohol on government flights, classified documents and ministerial swag.
  • Here is your look at ministerial expense repayments for various and sundry reasons.
  • The Victims of Communism memorial is now up for a new design from five different bidders, to go with its new location. The original design is out of the running.
  • Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers is leaving the job and will be leading a review of segregation in Ontario prisons.
  • Conservative MP (and former sportscaster) Kevin Waugh thinks that female athletes are treated better than their male counterparts, and is being criticised for it.
  • The first Conservative leadership debate is tonight.
  • The premier of PEI is (rightfully) expressing some scepticism over the province’s electoral reform plebiscite results, and reformers are howling as a result.
  • My Loonie Politics column looks at whether the instances of Liberal backbenchers voting against the government are really signs of independence showing.

Odds and ends:

The Yukon Liberals won the territorial election on Monday night, and Trudeau congratulated prospective new premier Sandy Silver.

Both women candidates in the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race have dropped out citing harassment and intimidation.

Roundup: The whinge of the everyman

I had hoped that after the last round of appointments that we were done with the vapid narcissistic “everyman/woman” wannabe candidates for the Senate would finally go back into the woodwork, but no, I see that we are indulging them once more in a plaintive wail about how terribly unfair it is that deserving, qualified candidates with decades of community and specialty experience got the nod and not them. Because who wouldn’t want an expert in the field when you could get a hot dog vendor or a draftsman who will totally enrich the legislative experience by…um, well, I’m not really sure. I mean, that’s kind of why we have a House of Commons, right? So that the everyman/woman can run and get their chance to do their part and influence policy and so on? And then the Senate goes over their work to ensure that they haven’t made mistakes with the legislation and that it’s all looking good. You know, that whole sober second thought thing? Still failing to see what value a hot dog vendor is going to add to that process. But oh noes! Elites! To which I simply reply “So what?” Do you, hot dog vendor and draftsman who are complaining to the media that your application was passed over, actually know the role and function of the Senate? Because based on everything you’ve said here, I’m not seeing that indication at all.

Meanwhile, Senator Peter Harder is coming to the defence of the new appointment system (as he obviously would, being a recipient of its beneficence already), but takes a few gratuitous swipes at the partisans still in the Senate while he’s at it. But there’s a key paragraph in there toward the bottom, where he talks about how Trudeau “voluntarily relinquished one of the traditional levers of power of his political party and of his office” when he expelled his senators from his caucus, and it rankles just a bit. Why? Because Trudeau didn’t so much give up one traditional lever of power so much as he used the show of relinquishing his lever to gain control over a bunch of other levers instead that are less obvious, from centralizing power over the MPs in his caucus with their institutional memory driven from the room, or his now using ministers to meet with individual senators to try to cut deals for support and using Harder’s own empire-building efforts to “colonize” the new independent senators with his offers of “support” and constant attempts to bigfoot the efforts of the Independent Senators Group to establish their own processes. So no, government influence has not been driven from the Senate – it’s just changed forms, and not necessarily as transparent as it was before, and yes, that does matter.

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Roundup: Points for process

From all accounts, the First Ministers meeting in Vancouver got off to a terse start. Premiers were unhappy over the regional bickering over Energy East and discussions of carbon pricing, while Indigenous groups were grousing that they should also have been at that table when it comes to coming up with a plan on combating climate change. By lunch, word around the place was that Trudeau was digging in his heels and was ready to impose a national carbon price on the provinces if they continued to balk and not work together to come to some kind of framework. And, by those same accounts, something changed after lunch and they struck a more conciliatory tone, and even though the meeting ran overtime, they came up with the Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which was essentially an agreement on process. They have six months now to form four working groups and when they meet again in September, the expectation is that there will be more concrete plans, but carbon pricing mechanisms will be part of it – though there seems to be some indication that somehow carbon capture and storage will be seen as some kind of mechanism related to climate mitigation, despite the fact that thus far it’s been an expensive failure of a concept (but hey, Brad Wall is fully committed to it). And then even more grousing happened from the opposition, where the Conservatives complained that there was too much uncertainty for market investment (though not really if you consider that carbon pricing is coming, which the energy sector has actually been demanding and building into their projections), and the NDP moaning that there are still no targets or timelines (to which one wonders if they would have simply imposed them and told the provinces to deal with it if they were in charge, as with their vaunted plans for a cap-and-trade system despite the fact that BC has a successful carbon tax). So if nobody goes away happy, does that mean it was some measure of success? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t diminish the fact that there was a victory for process, because (and it can’t be stated enough) process matters. Democracy is process. So if you have a process laid out, it means that you can move ahead in a coordinated fashion with a plan and a road map and go from there. That may be an understated ending to the conference, but we’ll have to see what the next six months bring.

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