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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Roundup: Boutique tax credits for everyone!

The very first Private Members’ Bill up on the docket to be debated is one that give me a real headache, and it’s one that should be disallowed from being voteable, all because of a wee little loophole in the rules. The bill, from Conservative MP Ted Falk, aims to increase the tax rebate which charities receive to match the same level that one gets for political donations. The problem? That this is really an expenditure, and private members’ bills are forbidden to spend money without a royal recommendation (though MPs have gone to increasingly ridiculous lengths in recent years to try and contort logic to pretend that those bills don’t spend money when in fact they do). The even bigger problem? That a loophole currently exists in the rules that makes it technically possible for these bills asking for a tax credit to bypass the spending rules because technically (and under the way that procedure is interpreted) the bill seeks to reduce tax paid, not increase or expend taxes. That’s not actually true, mind you – ask the Auditor General or any decent economist and they’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that tax credits are actually expenditures, and unfortunately there is precedent on Falk’s side, particularly with a certain PMB from Dan McTeague several parliaments ago where he got a tax deduction in under that technicality and it was deemed to be in order. The government repealed the measure in their next budget, but the bill got though when really it shouldn’t have. Unfortunately it opened the door to these kinds of bills that are looking to create new boutique tax credits, and that’s a problem. Our tax code is already thousands of pages, and far too complex. Boutique tax credits are actually terrible policy, but governments have decided that they’re good politics because they feel like they’re rewarding certain groups for certain behaviours, and damn the consequences. The Auditor General has sounded the alarm that these measures aren’t being properly tracked because they’re not deemed expenditures (even though they are), which means that they’re not being given proper parliamentary oversight to ensure that it’s money that’s being well spent – and he found many cases where it’s not. But as Falk is demonstrating, the floodgates are opening, and it won’t be long before the Order Paper is replete with these PMBs demanding new boutique tax credits for everything under the sun, to encourage all manner of behaviour that they deem a social good, under the rubric that they’re not spending any money and thus within the rules. It’s a loophole that Parliament needs to set upon itself to close for the sake of the tax code and parliament’s ability to hold these kinds of spending measures to account. Sadly, one suspects that in their self-interest, MPs won’t make the needed rule change and we can expect this situation to get worse with every passing parliamentary session.

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Roundup: Overwrought defences

Plenty of developments in the Senate yesterday, all of them resignation related. Manitoba Senator Maria Chaput resigned due to health concerns, Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein has reached his mandatory retirement age, and Senate Liberal Senator Pierrette Ringuette has resigned from the Senate Liberal caucus to sit as an Independent. As part of the tributes to Gerstein, there were some overwrought statements on the Conservative side about the value of political fundraisers, and I will say that I’m not one of those people who has a kneejerk reaction to fundraisers who get appointed to the Senate. Why? Because these are people who interact with the voters as much as MPs do, and have a pretty good sense of what their issues are (if only to exploit them for political gain). It’s like being aghast that there’s politics in politics. Granted, the tone out of the Conservative Senate caucus these days of “See! There’s nothing wrong with being partisan!” isn’t helping their case any, but on a fundamental level they’re right. They just need to tone it down from an eleven to a two or a three. As for Ringuette, I will note that the fetishised tones being used to describe the “desire for an independent Senate” are as equally overwrought as the Conservatives’ defence of partisanship. I was particularly struck by Ringuette going on Power & Politics and declaring that there’s nothing in the constitution that says that the Senate has to be a partisan body, therefore she and others of that mindset feel that there’s no role for partisanship. Where that argument falls apart is that it’s right in the preamble of the constitution itself – that Canada has a political system like that of the United Kingdom, and last I checked, its upper chamber was also a partisan body (and no, this isn’t an invitation to compare the Senate to the House of Lords, because they are very different institutions, but the principle of the upper chamber remains). People who insist that something isn’t in the constitution (*cough*Elizabeth May*cough*) ignore the unwritten parts of it, which are just as valid as the written parts, and it’s not an adequate defence for how they imagine institutions to function. So while it’s good on Ringuette to want to go her own way, I do think that the conversation around independent senators is still in its early stages, and I have no doubt that there are plenty of surprises on the way.

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Roundup: The problem with private members’ bills

I’ve written a lot about the problems with private members’ bills, and in my column this week over at Loonie Politics, it came up again given that the lottery for the Order of Precedence was posted. I wrote about it back in the spring when there were a number of problematic ones that the Senate was possibly going to kill (and in some cases did when the clock ran out on them) for good reason – because they were bad bills. While interviewing Liberal Senator George Baker yesterday for a story I was writing, he offered this, which I unfortunately wasn’t able to include in the piece, but every MP should nevertheless read it and take it to heart:

“Here’s a real problem with these private member’s bills: if there’s a fault in the bill, if there’s a word out of place, if there’s an error in the wording or in the intent of a sentence of paragraph – if it’s a private member’s bill, then the Senate is in a quandary because if they amend the bill, then they will in all likelihood be defeating the bill. If you amend a bill in the Senate, if it’s a private member’s bill, it goes back to the Commons and it goes to the bottom of the list for consideration, and then the private member will come to the Senate committee and say you’re going to pass this bill. We had it happen three times in the past two years. They say you’re going to defeat the bill, so the Senate turned around and passed the bill, given the tradition of not defeating something that’s legitimately passed in the House of Commons, and Senate ignored the necessary amendments and they passed bad legislation.”

Baker is absolutely right in that there is a problem – MPs don’t have them drafted very well, and then don’t do their due diligence because these bills are automatically time-allocated by design. That a number of these bills died on the Order Paper in the Senate one hopes might be an object lesson to MPs that they need to do better, but unfortunately, the lesson too many MPs took is that the “unelected and unaccountable Senate” didn’t just rubber-stamp a bill because it passed the Commons. Except, of course, it’s not their job to rubber stamp, and we’ve had an increasing number of bad bills getting through the cracks based on these emotive arguments, and not a few hissy fits along the way *cough*Reform Act*cough*. And now we have bad laws on the books because of it, apparently content to let the courts handle it instead. It’s sad and a little pathetic, to be perfectly honest. We should be demanding out MPs do better, and when they screw up, they need to take their lumps so that they’ll do better next time. Otherwise they won’t learn – or worse, they will take the wrong lesson, and our system will be worse off.

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Roundup: Barton in charge

The announcement came down yesterday making it all official – Rosemary Barton has now passed the gauntlet of the competition process and has officially been named the permanent host of CBC’s Power & Politics. It’s not as though she didn’t more than prove herself in spades over the course of the election, with six-days-a-week broadcasts, and sharp coverage, but that Chris Alexander interview, where she shut down one of his tantrums and put him in his place – that has become legendary in political circles already. A senior journalist in this town described her as an “accountability interviewer,” and that’s something that’s been desperately needed in this city, where there has been a certain amount of timidity in the kinds of interviews we’ve seen. Not having a Jeremy Paxman of our own, we’d seen many a political show host in this country tiptoe around members of the Harper government for close to a decade because they often threatened (or instituted) boycotts after one hissy fit or another (John Baird being particularly famous for them), but Barton was having none of that – and it went for opposition MPs as well, like her interview with Thomas Mulcair pretty much on the day she was given the interim job when Evan Soloman’s sudden firing happened, and she didn’t put up with Mulcair’s too-cute-by-half routine. In their release, CBC pointed out her history as a reporter, going back to her starting out as a researcher for the French-language RDI while in Winnipeg, and covering politics in Quebec City – the kinds of chops that her predecessor never had, who relied instead on personality than on hard-won experience in covering the beat. And with Barton’s permanent appointment comes the acknowledgement of the changing face of politics in Canada – the fact that she’s not a middle-aged white male is important in an age of younger MPs, and of gender-equal cabinets, that a younger woman is tougher and more competent in the role than her middle-aged male contemporaries. It’s just too bad that this announcement didn’t happen in June on the heels of Solomon’s departure. (And as for Evan Solomon, it was announced that he’s taking over the afternoon broadcast for Ottawa’s CFRA radio station, because all is apparently forgiven for his ethical lapses).

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Roundup: Political drinking

The admission by new Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan that he’s seeking treatment for an “alcohol-free lifestyle” is one that has brought plaudits and expressions of support from across the political spectrum. This is, after all, the age where people are being more open about issues like addiction and mental health, in order to shake the stigma that still surrounds it. But as Laura Payton writes in Maclean’s, this does present a problem with the way that Ottawa works currently, where much of the socialising here revolves around cocktails. Social functions put on by lobby and industry groups are in that 5-7 hour, when MPs come out of votes or committee meetings and head to them for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and schmoozing. It’s pretty much the only bonding experiences that MPs have left, given that the shared experiences of dining together three nights a week before late sitting debates happened were killed off in the early nineties in an attempt to make the institution more “family friendly.” But really, what this misses is the fact that it’s a far less booze-intensive place than it used to be, and I’m not talking about the post-Confederation days when there used to be a pub in the basement of the original Centre Block. No, up until the early nineties, there was far more access to alcohol around the Parliamentary precinct, where there used to be beer machines everywhere (one of the last was in the Press Gallery’s Hot Room), where there used to be the Press Club where reporters and sometimes politicians would drink together at the end of the day, and when martini lunches were a Thing. And those late night debates were often lubricated by drinks with dinner, during an age where you couldn’t order by the glass in the Parliamentary Restaurant, but rather had to buy the whole bottle (which they would put your name on and keep behind the bar for you). So really, if anything, it’s probably the easiest it’s ever been for people who are abstaining to be around the environment. On the other hand, there has been a direct loss in the collegiality between MPs since the booze largely stopped flowing. Make of it what you will, but the relationship between politics and alcohol is an interesting and fairly interconnected one, which makes a story like O’Regan’s a particularly interesting one to consider in the broader context.

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Roundup: Going around the rules

So there were shenanigans in the Senate yesterday, the result of a confluence of a number of factors. Some of them are longer term – the terrible manner in which Harper has made his appointments has left a large cadre of Conservative senators who feel beholden to him and his largely imaginary whip. There are exceptions to the rule, but there are a lot of Senators right now who still feel they need to follow the PM’s rule because he appointed them, and that’s simply not the case. It was just a sensibility encouraged by the Senate leadership on the Conservative side who had far too many newbie senators in place at once. Then there’s the problem of the bill itself. The PMO has ruled they want to see this go through – never mind that it would create a giant bureaucracy at CRA, and that it could have “staggering” compliance costs for mutual funds and other organisations beyond the unions it’s targeting. It’s also a constitutional overreach because labour relations are a provincial jurisdiction, but the government wants this through because they see unions as a big threat to them. It never should have been a private members’ bill, but that was how they introduced it, and got it past the worst of the scrutiny on the Commons side because of automatic time limits. The Senate recognised it as unconstitutional and a threat to labour relations in this country, and even a number of Conservative senators opposed it. Led by Hugh Segal, they voted to amend the bill to near uselessness and sent it back to the Commons – but then prorogation happened, and the amendments were undone when the bill reset (thanks to Senate rules). In the interim, Hugh Segal retired, and Marjory LeBreton stepped down as government leader, almost certainly because of the caucus revolt over the bill. The Conservative senators sat on the bill for months before the PMO decided it wanted them to try and pass the bill. The Liberals, as is their right, filibustered. And they have the provinces on their side – seven provinces representing more than 80 percent of the population are opposed to the bill, and the Senate has a regional representation role. Things came to a head yesterday when the Conservatives tried to break the filibuster by trying to time allocate the bill – something they can’t do under Senate rules, and when the Speaker said no, the Conservatives challenged the ruling – something they can actually do under Senate rules. Kady O’Malley explains some of it here, and I responded with a Twitter essay.

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