Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Copping to privilege is not excusing it

Earlier in the week, Justin Trudeau was asked by VICE about the problem of people getting criminal records for pot possession when decriminalization is around the corner, and he related a story about how his late brother was once charged with possession and their father, with his influence and connections, was able to make those charges go away. And then the opposition went crazy with it.

Of course, Raitt is missing the point in that it wasn’t that Trudeau is endorsing one set of rules for the elites and one for everyone else. (Raitt, of course, is trying to use the “Trudeau is an elite and I’m just a Regular Girl™” line as her campaign platform, which is getting pretty tired). He’s acknowledging that the current system ensures that kind of outcome, which is why he’s looking to change it.

Thomas Mulcair, of course, couldn’t wait to rail about the “abject hypocrisy” of it all, and to repeat his demands that the government immediately put through decriminalization until legalization is sorted, as though this was something that the PM could just snap his fingers and do.

But no, that’s not how this works. Mulcair has been in politics to know this, which makes his concern trolling all the more disingenuous.

If you wanted a measure that could be implemented right away, then the provinces could opt not to pursue charges for simple possession (which I think is pretty much what is going on in most cases), because they’re the ones who have jurisdiction for the administration of justice and who can set their own prosecutorial guidelines. They could instruct their Crown prosecutors not to pursue simple possession charges – but that’s the provinces’ call, not the PM’s – again, making Mulcair’s calls disingenuous. Decriminalization also doesn’t serve the stated purpose of legalization, which is to regulate sale to keep it out of the hands of children and to combat the black market. But I’m sure we’ll be hearing about this for the next few days, unless the Trumpocalypse and the brewing trade war consumes the news cycle today.

Update: I am informed by lawyers that I’m on the wrong track, that the federal prosecution service deals with drug offences and that simple possession charges are still common among minorities and marginalized groups. So mea culpa on that one.

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Roundup: Face it, strategic voting is a sham

With BC now in a provincial general election, the messages about “strategic voting” are again plaguing the social media channels. Brenda Fine, aka @moebius_strip, wrote a response to this constant complaints, and pointed out the huge folly in the various “strategies” being proposed, in part because they rely on dubious polling practices and because the groups organizing these “strategic voting” sites often have their own agendas (usually NDP partisans from my own observations) and will urge people to vote in ways that were wildly against the best chances for a non-Conservative (per the 2015 federal election), which in many cases was Liberal by a landslide. So yes, strategic voting is generally a foolhardy practice that has no actual basis is reality, but time after time, despite it being proven to be wrong, people continue to insist on it. Because this time, it’ll work for sure!

Part of what bugs me about the constant lamentations about strategic voting is that they are predicated on this notion that you should always be able to vote for ice cream with sprinkles in every election and get that result, even when ice cream with sprinkles is not always what’s on offer. Voting is about making a decision, and sometimes, it’s not an easy choice and voters are forced to put on their big boy/girl pants and make a tough decision given a bunch of unsavoury choices. Sure, it sucks, but it’s called being an adult in a democratic society, and you have a responsibility to make tough calls. And then, once you’ve made that tough call, you can look at what you did to contribute toward ensuring that there was a better choice on that ballot, whether it was participating in a nomination race to get better candidates’ names put forward, or joining a party to ensure that better policies were on offer coming from the grassroots membership. Of course, 98 percent of the population did nothing to ensure that there were better choices on that ballot, and then complain that they have to make an unsavoury choice. Aww, muffin. Democracy’s not a spectator sport where you get to just cast a ballot every four years if you’re not too busy. It means you actually have to participate if you want better outcomes. (And here’s a primer to show you that it’s actually not that difficult to do that and get involved).

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Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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QP: Justice delay bafflegab

With the PM still in France, most of the other leaders didn’t bother showing up either today, which places more doubt in their howling insistence that the QP is so important that the PM should be there daily. But I digress… Denis Lebel led off, asking about an accused murderer released based on the Jordan decision fallout. Jody Wilson-Raybould insisted that they had taken steps to ensure that there was a transparent, merit-based process, and more judges would be appointed soon. Lebel moved onto softwood lumber and the lack of progress — never mind that there is no trade representative appointed in the States — and François-Philippe Champagne insisted that they were working the provinces and working to engage the Americans. Lebel pivoted to the question of Syria and doing something about Assad, and Champagne said that Assad must be held accountable for his war crimes and Canada was committed to humanitarian assistance, refugee resettlement, and ensuring a peaceful Syria. Candice Bergen picked it up in English, accused the government of shifting positions, and wondered how hey planned to institute regime change. Champagne repeated his response in English, never quite answering the regime change question. Bergen then moved onto the Standing Orders, demanding any changes be made by consensus. Chagger gave a bland response about the necessity to have a serious conversation. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and wondered how many court cases had been thrown out because of delays. Wilson-Raybould reiterated her plan to appoint new judges, but didn’t answer the question. Mulcair asked why the delays in French, and Wilson-Raybould said that she was meeting with provinces to discuss the issues of delays in order to find a coordinated approach to tackling them. Mulcair moved onto problems with the military justice system, and Navdeep Bains responded that they were planning to work on ensuring reforms to that system. Mulcair sniped that Bains answered, then moved onto veterans’ pensions, and Ralph Goodale asserted that they would have an announcement later this year.

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QP: The most feminist budget ever

With Justin Trudeau off to New York, none of the other leaders decided to show up for QP today, so way to go for their insistence that all MPs should show up five days a week. Pierre Poilievre led off, demanding that the loan conditions to Bombardier to be reopened to ban the money from bonuses, to which Jean-Yves Duclos assured him that they were trying to grow the economy with key investments to the aerospace industry. Poilievre railed about the company’s family share structure, but Duclos’ answer didn’t change. Poilievre then moved onto the cancellation of tax credits, to which François-Philippe Champagne opted to answer, reminding him about their tax cuts. Gérard Deltell got up next to demand a balanced budget in the other official language, and Champagne reiterated his previous response. Deltell then worried that there was nothing in the budget for agriculture, and after a moment of confusion when Duclos stood up first, Lawrence MacAulay stood up to praise all kinds of measures in the budget. Sheila Malcolmson led off for the NDP, demanding childcare and pay equity legislation immediately. Maryam Monsef proclaimed that the budget was the most feminist budget in history, and listed off a number of commitments. Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet repeated the question in French, and Monsef listed off yet more budget commitments. Boutin-Sweet pivoted over to the changes to the Standing Orders, and Bardish Chagger deployed her “modernization” talking points, with some added self-congratulation about yesterday’s proto-PMQs. Murray Rankin demanded a special committee on modernization, and Chagger insisted she wanted to hear their views, but would not agree to a committee.

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Roundup: A jobs crisis report rooted in fancy

The Conservatives released their Alberta Jobs Taskforce report yesterday – a make-work project to make it look like they were paying attention to the plight of the province’s resource-driven downturn, never mind that it wasn’t going to actually do anything because they’re not in government. The eleven recommendations that it came up with were…ambitious. I won’t say magic (such as the Ontario NDP’s Hydro plan, also released yesterday, relied on), but I will say that it relies a lot on wishing and hoping instead.

To start off with, the top recommendation is to eliminate the proposed carbon tax – which is provincial jurisdiction, not federal, to be clear – and to reduce corporate and small business taxes along with reversing CPP contribution increases. These are typical Conservative bugaboos, so it’s not a surprise we would see these recommendations. “Reducing red tape” for resource projects? It’s like the Conservatives forgot that when they tried to do that when they were in office, it backfired on them and created even bigger headaches as the lack of due diligence, particularly around dealing with First Nations, landed them in court numerous times. Encourage retraining? Provincial jurisdiction. Review EI to “improve efficiency”? You mean like their ham-fisted attempt at doing that a couple of years ago that cost them every Atlantic Canadian seat that they had? Recommendation five is particularly interesting because it calls on both a) reducing red tape for starting small businesses while b) creating tax credits to hire unskilled workers. Ask any small business and they’ll tell you the worst red tape is the complex tax code, so asking for the creation of yet more tax credits is to work against the first demand. Coherence! Implement programs to encourage hiring of recent graduates (sounds like big government), while increasing financial literacy across Canada? Erm, how does that actually help youth? I don’t get the connection. Lower interprovincial trade barriers? Well, considering that every government has tried doing that since 1867, and that the Conservatives didn’t make any tangible progress in their nine years in office, I’m not sure that Alberta hurting now is going to suddenly fixate everyone to solve that problem. Adjust domestic policy to the new Trumpocalypse reality? Seriously? There is no policy coherence coming from the States, so how can Canada “adjust” to it? Reform credentials-matching for new immigrants and the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme? Again, if it were easy, the Conservatives would have done it when they were in power. And finally, balance the budget? How does this solve Alberta’s job woes? Oh wait, it doesn’t. It’s just yet another Conservative bugaboo that they’re trying to hit the government with, using Alberta’s jobs crisis as the cudgel.

I’m sure that they spent time on this, but honestly, I’m less than impressed with the suite of recommendations. The lack of coherence and insistence that nigh-intractable problems should be solved now when they haven’t been for decades is more than fanciful.

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Roundup: Senators get their funds

In case you missed the news, the new Independent Senators Group got core funding to hire staff to help coordinate independent senators’ activities and logistics. This came around the same time that they managed to strike a deal when it comes to getting more independents on committees without waiting for a prorogation to hit the reset button as the rules would otherwise dictate. Why this matters is because it allows the ISG to effectively organise their own members, to help them hire staff and do things like that – efforts which Government Leader – err, “representative” Senator Peter Harder has been attempting to bigfoot with his own offers to help these senators get staffed up and offering briefings and assisting in legislative coordination and so on. The fact that he represents the government and has been sworn into the Privy Council – regardless of his protestations that he’s independent because he’s actually not (you can’t be both an independent and represent the government – it’s like being half-pregnant) – makes this a blow to actual independence that these senators are supposed to be exercising. Giving the ISG the funds to do that on their own is an important step. Of course, the same piece mentions that Harder plans to move motions in the Senate in the spring related to his ability to restyle his title as he wishes, and that I have a problem with. This particular semantic game that he and the Trudeau government are playing around his role is a very big problem when it comes to how the chamber operates in our Westminster system, and Harder playing silly buggers with what he calls himself in order to cloak his role with the government is a problem. He and this government need to drop the charade and just come clean – Harder should be a cabinet minister in keeping with the role, and be the point of contact for accountability in the Senate. Playing games around it weakens accountability and the duty of the Senate in that role.

Meanwhile, with the appointment process for six upcoming vacancies having been announced, we also got the release of the report on the statistics from the previous round (highlights here). Maybe this time we’ll see an appointment from Southwestern Ontario, a new LGBT senator or even someone from outside of the social sciences!

Finally, Senator Denise Batters appears to have broken the rules to record a video in the Senate Chamber, accusing Trudeau of authoritarian tendencies in trying to destroy opposition in the Senate. While her basic premise – that there is a movement to shut down the position of Official Opposition in the Senate – is correct and concerning, Batters cranked it up to eleven in being completely overwrought about it, and does more harm than good to the issue. I’m not sure how much the move to weaken Official Opposition in the Senate comes from Trudeau or from Harder and his particular vision of Senate “independence” where he can co-opt the independents to his causes, but that remains a concern that I’ve heard from not only the Liberals and Conservatives in the Senate, but a couple of the independents as well. But this kind of stunt doesn’t help.

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Roundup: The problem with measuring parliamentary productivity

Every year around this time, we get the series of articles trying to measure just how “productive” parliament has been, and it uses metrics like how many votes passed – as though that were the sole function of an MP.  And while Aaron Wherry tried to challenge this particular metric of parliamentary productivity, I thought that I would add a few added bits of context. For starters, a number of the bills passed by the Conservatives late in any parliamentary sitting would be some small and very narrow bills to do with something like legislating changes to a particular federal park whose boundaries they expanded (and called it an environmental programme), or specific one-off changes that deal with particular First Nations. They would introduce these bills, let them languish on the Order Paper, and then just before the Commons was set to rise for either winter or summer break, they would pass them at all stages with pretty much no debate or committee hearing, citing them as uncontroversial, and off they would go to the Senate, where they tended to at least get a few hours of debate. Bills like these helped to inflate the numbers that the Conservatives would then cite to “prove” just how productive they had been, when in reality, so much debate time got swallowed up by the need to constantly debate and vote on time allocation motions.

Meanwhile, has this particular government been slow on their legislative agenda? Hell, yes. The fact that Bill C-7 on RCMP labour relations went the entire fall sitting without being brought back for debate after the Senate amended the bill last June is concerning. This was a bill that was in response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that was granted a brief extension by the Court (around the same time as the assisted dying legislation) and the fact that said deadline expired months ago is a problem. I really don’t know why Bill C-32 (equalising the age of consent for gay sex) hasn’t been brought up for debate yet because the bill is a no-brainer and could (and should) pass with a mere few hours of debate, and yet it’s been sitting there for a month. There are customs and pre-clearance bills that have been sitting on the Order Paper since June, which you think would be important to a government that is looking to try to eliminate barriers to trade with the United States. I’m not sure why the House Leaders are having difficulty in getting these bills moved forward. So while I do think that trying to measure the effectiveness of a parliament by the number of bills passed is a bogus measure, it doesn’t mean that there still aren’t bills that they should have moved on months ago.

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Roundup: Partisan crybabies and skewered straw men

As machinations and protestations go, the current drama in the Senate is starting to try my patience, particularly because so many of the players seem to be getting drawn off onto silly tangents at the expense of the bigger picture. In particular, the Conservative senators continuing to push this conspiracy theory that all new independent senators are just Liberals in-all-but-name is really, really throwing them off the message that Senator Peter Harder is trying to destroy the Westminster traditions of the Senate, and has a stated goal of removing any sense of official opposition from the Chamber. But when the complaints about Harder’s machinations are drowned out by their conspiracy theorizing, they’re only harming their arguments by making themselves look petty. And it is concerning what Harder has been up to, his latest move being a closed-door meeting for all senators to “discuss short-term and long-term government business.” Add to this are a number of the more established independent senators, who previously felt shut out, excusing Harder’s actions because he’s trying to bring them in, oblivious to the fact that this is how he’s trying to build his little empire.

Add to this conversation comes former senator Hugh Segal who penned an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen, bravely skewering straw men all around him about those darned partisan senators not giving up committee spots to independent senators (when he knows full well that it’s an ongoing process and that committees don’t get reconstituted until after a prorogation), and coming to the defence of Harder, with whom he worked together all of those years ago during the Mulroney government before Harder transitioned to the civil service. Poor Peter Harder, whose budget has been cruelly limited by all of those partisan senators and how he can’t get the same budget as Leaders of the Government in the Senate past (never mind that Harder has no caucus to manage, nor is he a cabinet minister as the Government Leader post is ostensibly). Gosh, the partisan senators are just being so unfair to him. Oh, please.

So long as people are content to treat this as partisan crybabies jealously guarding their territory, we’re being kept blind as to what Harder’s attempts to reshape the Senate are going to lead to. His attempts to dismantle the Westminster structure are not about making the chamber more independent – it’s about weakening the opposition to the government’s agenda. Trying to organise coherent opposition amongst 101 loose fish is not going to cut it, and Harder knows it. The Senate’s role as a check on the government is about to take a serious blow so long as people believe Harder’s revisionist history and back-patting about how great a non-partisan Senate would be. Undermining parliament is serious business, and we shouldn’t let them get away with it because we think it’s cute that it’s making the partisans angry.

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