Roundup: The good news rollouts

The Liberals’ planned rollout of all kinds of “good news” announcements for Small Business Week – reductions in the small business tax rate by 2019, and changes to their planned amendments to Canadian-Controlled Private Corporation (CCPC) rules to crack down on those who use them to avoid paying taxes – were very nearly overshadowed by a Globe and Mail article that cried out that Bill Morneau hadn’t put his shares into a blind trust after all. As it turns out, this was largely a non-story – Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner, who felt that because of his particular share structure that he wouldn’t need a blind trust but an ethics screen instead – though there are some added complications around it (see Glen McGregor’s tweets). This after the “revelation” about Morneau’s French villa – not that he had forgotten to disclose it, because he had already – just that he didn’t disclose the particular ownership structure, which is a French corporate structure not uncommon with the ownership of non-commercial real estate, known as a Société Civile Immobilière. Again, a non-story that the opposition (and certain media outlets) pounced upon, trying to make a bigger deal out of them than was merited.

And then there was the Prime Minister’s tax cut announcement at that Stouffville restaurant, and the somewhat bizarre behaviour by Trudeau in the Q&A period after where he tried to answer questions directed at Morneau (no doubt trying to keep control of the message and not let it get railroaded by the non-stories about his villa and shares, but it came off as smarmy). And back in Ottawa, his backbench critics seemed mollified by the morning’s announcements, so we’ll see if that holds in the days ahead. (Not to be outdone by all of the Liberal press shenanigans, Andrew Scheer walked out on a press conference when asked about his former campaign manager’s association with Rebel Media.)

Meanwhile, neither Chantal Hébert nor Andrew Coyne are impressed with the theatrics of this government’s attempt to change the channel on the pummelling they’ve received.

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Roundup: Cozy think tank takedowns

Over on Maclean’s yesterday was a longread “exposé” of Canada 2020 as an arm of the federal Liberal party which is exerting all manner of influence, and how potentially inappropriate that may be. But after reading the piece, I found it less a convincing exploration of the think tank than it was simply a recitation of names with “links” to the Liberals, followed by Duff Conacher’s railing about how awful it all is.

Pro tip: If your story relies on Duff Conacher’s analysis of government misdeeds, then it’s probably not worth reading. Conacher is a noted crank who has a history of distorting issues and losing court battles, and who has a number of particularly harmful ideological agendas that involve the destruction of the Canadian Crown, the Westminster system, making all prerogatives justiciable, and one supposes the installation of a Parliamentary Thought Police with himself at the head. (Note: I have had to quote Conacher for stories in the past, but have limited those interactions to narrow questions of ethics legislation rather than the breadth of topics that other rely on his analysis for, just as Anne Kingston does here). In other words, it’s the laziest possible journalist trick in Canada if you want to write a story that makes any government look bad, and you won’t get any meaningful analysis of the issue.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t questions that can be raised about Canada 2020’s cozy relationship with the Liberal Party – but I would say that it’s in all likelihood no more nefarious than the kinds of ideological alignment between something like the Fraser Institute and the Conservative Party, and it’s no more incestuous than the Broadbent Institute is with the NDP (to the point where Broadbent’s PressProgress “news” service is simply a branch of the party’s opposition research bureau).

Part of the problem is that political parties in Canada have looked south with this particular kind of envy about the think tank networks in Washington as something that should be emulated, without necessarily realizing that the American think tank network is intrinsically linked to the fact that their civil service is far more partisan than Canada’s, and that the usual cycle is for parties who aren’t in power to send their senior staffers to bide their time in said think tanks, and when they return to power, they fill their upper civil service ranks from those think tanks, while those who’ve lost power fill their own think tank ranks, and on it goes. That’s not how things work in Canada, and the need for said think tanks is not the same. There has also been talk from some partisans about how they need these think tanks to help them develop policies, as thought that wasn’t the job of the parties’ grassroots membership. So I do think we need to rethink the whole “think tank” system in Canada writ-large and what parties are expecting of them – especially when it comes to policy development – but I’m not sure that this story is doing that job.

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Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: A reminder of why debate matters

While I haven’t been following the trial in Sudbury around those non-criminal bribery charges related to the provincial by-election, aside from Chris Selley’s columns on the topic, it was something that he tweeted from the courtroom yesterday that piqued my interest because it’s something I deal with a fair amount in writing both about law and politics. Part of the issue raised is that these sections of the law that the trial is proceeding under have never been tested before.

We see these kinds of bills passed not infrequently federally that are passed at all stages with no debate. This is usually where the Senate picks up the slack and does the actual heavy lifting, but not always. Sure, there are a few bills that are relatively non-contentious, related to national parks and such (to think of an example or two off the top of my head), but some that matter – like the changes to royal succession in Canadian law – got no debate in the Commons despite it being a fairly fundamental problem that the law as passed effectively reduced Canada’s status to that of a colony once again.

But the point I make is that the courts will often turn to Parliament for guidance in what it is they should be interpreting. That means looking to debates and committee transcripts to try to divine just what it is that Parliament intended when they passed the bill so that the judge can rule one way or the other in clarifying the meaning. And if you have no such debates – like in this Ontario statute – well, that’s a real problem. It’s also a reason why I will frequently harp on why the Senate matters so much is because they not only will offer some debate in instances where the Commons offers none, but it’s where committee testimony becomes most crucial, especially when it comes to hearing from witnesses that people object to (as happened with the trans rights bill) – because they want it on the record that they heard and dismissed these concerns should they eventually be litigated.

Parliament is supposed to matter, and MPs (and MPPs in this particular instance) do themselves and the province or country they serve a real disservice when they don’t do the job of putting things on the record. And I’ll say that the issue going on in Ontario right now with the bubble law around abortion clinics is another such issue. The provincial Progressive Conservatives offered to pass the bill at all stages – eager to get it off the agenda so that it minimizes the divisions in their ranks on the issue, and the Liberals refused, wanting instead to hear from those it affects. While the cynical calculation is that this is the Liberals playing politics – and to an extent it really is – it’s also the responsible thing to do, so that we get some debate and testimony on the record, so that when this legislation is inevitably challenged, there is a record for the courts to turn to. And yes, that matters beyond the petty politicking.

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Roundup: A new GG and a new NDP leader

Today is the day that Julie Payette is sworn in, and will soon be known as Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada. To that end, she has been receiving the customary signals of office over the past couple of weeks, as she takes on the roles of the chancellor (or “Principal Companion”) of the Order of Canada, the Order of Military Merit, the Order of Merit of the Police Forces, and the prior of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (with note that the Queen is the fount of all Canadian honours).

Payette will have an extremely busy schedule from here on in, acting in the ceremonial capacity that state functions demand, doing diplomacy domestically and internationally, becoming a patron to charities, and keeping on top of her constitutional duties. It’s a big job, but given Payette’s accomplishments I’m quite sure that she’ll be up to the task.

Payette is also the first GG since the 1950s who comes to the position without a spouse, so she has nobody to help share the burden of appearances with, so that will be an interesting change from the past few appointments, where there has been this sense of a two-for-one deal between the GG and their highly-accomplished spouses. It will also, unfortunately, mean that more people will be attempting to download the whole “First Lady” nonsense to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau when the closest Canadian equivalent was the “Chatelaine of Rideau Hall” (when the GG was male – I’m not sure what the male of equivalent of Chatelaine is), presuming that one doesn’t count Prince Philip given that he’s actually the spouse of our head of state (and we don’t have a “First Family” because we have a royal family).

Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on the meaning of the GG as our Commander-in-Chief in Canada.

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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: Unexpected PBO problems

As it turns out, there is another problem with the legislation that turns the Parliamentary Budget Officer into a full-fledged independent officer of parliament rather than his current status as being part of the Library of Parliament – it just so happens that they need to request any information from ministers themselves and not from civil servants. And nobody flagged this issue during study of the bill when it was before Parliament. Oops.

The concern from the PBO is that this could automatically politicise the work, as though that wasn’t already happening. After all, the PBO has become the opposition’s favourite cudgel to bash the government with, and shield by which to hid behind in order to insist that the report comes from the “objective, non-partisan” PBO and therefore is sacrosanct. Not to mention, that the creation of the office has meant that MPs have one more person to fob their homework off onto rather than doing it for themselves. After all, math is hard, and they have better things to do. So will the change have any material effect? Hard to say, given that the bureaucracy has been reluctant to share all of the requested information to date, and a government that is happy with the PBO one day can quickly become a government that is unhappy with him the next, and they could start insisting that all information is cabinet confidence. But they can already do that with information being requested by way of the civil service, so perhaps that’s a moot point. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, there have been no efforts to rein in the scope of the PBO’s work, which could become a different sort of problem down the road. Ontario’s PBO-equivalent released a report yesterday that seemed to be a little outside of its mandate, leading to indications that perhaps there are problems brewing.

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Roundup: End of round one

The first round of NAFTA talks has ended without any firm conclusions in one way or another, which is to be expected. It is also noted that they were free from any public drama, but it’s still early days, so we’ll see how long that lasts, especically considering that we’re dealing with an Uncertainty Engine for a president in the United States. While the US is signalling that Buy America is a non-negotiable in NAFTA talks, the PMO has assembled a crack unit to deal with the fallout of a US walkout on talks, seeing as Trump already played his walkout card months ago so it gave them time to prepare.

Meanwhile, trouble with NAFTA talks could mean an economic slowdown, as there have already been some signs of slowdown in the manufacturing sector, and expectations that GDP growth could start to slow for the remainder of the year. That having been said, there’s also talk that if the Trump administration tries to simply tear up NAFTA, there are recourses that Congress has at its disposal that would essentially work to keep the existing agreement up and running by backdoor means, but it’s messy and complicated (and you can see Alex Panetta talking about that starting at 10:51 on this Sunday Scrum segment).

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Roundup: Concern trolling over tax loopholes

There’s been a great deal of concern trolling going on over the past few days when it comes to the planned changes to self-incorporation to close the tax loopholes found therein. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer tweeted out another of his disingenuous messages yesterday, talking about “hiking taxes” on doctors – who are leading the concern trolling charge against this closure of self-incorporation loopholes – which is not surprising, but nevertheless not exactly the truth about what is going on.

Meanwhile, economist Kevin Milligan has been dismantling the concern trolling arguments with aplomb, so I’ll let him take it from here:

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