Roundup: Cullen’s plan to launder accountability

The NDP used their Supply Day motion yesterday to call for a new process to vet nominations for Officers of Parliament using a newly created subcommittee of Procedure and House Affairs that would have one member from each recognized party to vet the nominees. And while you may think on the surface that this is innocuous, there are plenty of problems with this proposal that go to the core of our system of Responsible Government.

For starters, the original motion was absolutely a veto, despite Nathan Cullen’s protests, and that’s not entirely appropriate given our system. They negotiated an amendment to remove that section, but the Liberals decided they weren’t going to agree to the motion in any case, which is fine because the veto wasn’t the bigger problem.

The problem is that a committee like this will not actually bring other parties into the process to make it “non-partisan,” but rather, it will launder the government’s responsibility for the appointments so that it becomes impossible to hold them to account when things go wrong. Remember when the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, turned out to be a giant problem? Do you remember what the government said when it came up in QP? They said “We consulted and no one raised any objections then – not our problem,” which was untrue. Add this process in, and that “not our problem” becomes baked in. At least this government has enough of a shred of decency when it comes to our parliamentary system to not look to find a new solution to wash their hands of future accountability, because that’s all that this motion offers – aside from the ability for opposition parties to engage in shenanigans of their own on the nomination sub-committee. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that for many of these Officers, they serve Parliament as a whole, so a process that excludes senators becomes even more problematic for the functioning of our system.

To try and tie this to what happened with Madeleine Meilleur is a bit of a red herring – through the established process, it became clear to everyone (except maybe Mélanie Joly) that Meilleur simply wasn’t suited, most especially after she managed to alienate Anglophone Quebeckers – an extremely difficult thing to do, and yet she managed, and with the Senate lining up to vote against her appointment, it pretty much proves that the existing system worked.

No, this is about this farcical notion that people like Cullen keep pushing about how this is all about “making Parliament work.” It already works when the players involved do their jobs, and creating new processes creates added complications and unintended consequences, like the laundering of accountability, which nobody thinks about or raises as an issue because few people bother to learn how the system works. This Americanized suggestion is flash in the pan, trying to capitalize on what was clearly a blunder that the existing system nevertheless corrected. And if people had any good sense, they’d stop listening to Nathan Cullen’s attempts to “improve” our democracy.

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QP: Carbon taxes and foreign takeovers

On a sweltering day in Ottawa, things carried on as usual in the House of Commons. Andrew Scheer led off, railing about carbon taxes killing the manufacturing sector, never mind that in his Ontario example, it was a provincial carbon price. Justin Trudeau hit back with jibes that it was good to see that most of the aconservaties believed in the Paris Accords and that carbon pricing was good for the market. Scheer groused that they would meet the targets without a carbon price, before moving onto the Norsat sale and lack of a comprehensive security screening. Trudeau reminded him that they took the advice of national security agencies. Scheer took a second kick, needling that Trudeau admired Chinese dictatorship too much to care about national security, and Trudeau lashed back that partisan jibes like that were unworthy of this place. Denis Lebel was up next, demanding a non-partisan process to appoint parliamentary watchdogs, and Trudeau noted their new appointments and rattled off some of the diversity of the new reports. Lebel tried again in English, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking if the Der Spiegel article was true that the government was backing away from climate goals at the G20. Trudeau insisted that they have been climate leaders and pointed to examples. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau was unequivocal that he did not say what was in the article. Mulcair then turned to the issue of court cases involving First Nations children and dialled up the sanctimony to 11, and Trudeau noted the memorandum of understanding he signed with the AFN this morning about moving forward on steps. Mulcair demanded that the NDP bill on UNDRIP be adopted, but Trudeau insisted they were moving forward in consultation (never mind that said bill is almost certainly of dubious constitutionality).

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Roundup: NDP catch the Corbynite smugness

It was a bit odd, yesterday, watching NDP MP Erin Weir stand up before Question Period to offer congratulations to UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on his “success” during this week’s election, considering that Corbyn lost. Weir considered it an inspiration to their own leadership candidates, each of whom also offered variations thereof over social media. (Andrew Scheer, for the record, also tweeted encouragement to Theresa May for “strong stable leadership” – a veritable echo of Stephen Harper’s 2011 campaign slogan – only to see May’s fortunes crumble).

Of course, this NDP praise of Corbyn ignores the context in which he “won” (by which we mean lost) this week, and that was that Labour’s share of the vote and seat count went up in spite of Corbyn’s leadership and not because of it. Why? Because he’s been an absolute disaster as a party leader, and an even bigger disaster as opposition leader, and in many instances couldn’t even be bothered to do his job in trying to hold the government to account on matters of supply – an appalling dereliction of duty. And this is without getting into Corbyn’s record of being a terrorist sympathizer, someone who took money from Iran’s propaganda networks and whose activist base has a disturbing tendency to anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, this “success” of Corbyn’s (and by “success” we mean he lost), Twitter was full of mystifying smugness from hard left-wing types, insisting that it meant that Bernie Sanders would have won the general election (never mind that he couldn’t even win the primaries). Yes, the fact that Corbyn managed to motivate the youth vote is something that will need study in the weeks to come, I’m not sure that we can discount the fact that there is a certain naïveté with the youth response to his manifesto promises that was full of holes, and there was a youth response to Sanders as well, which some have attributed to the “authenticity” of his being a political survivor. Can this translate into a mass movement? I have my doubts.

The smugness around his “win” (which, was in fact a loss) however, is a bit reminiscent of the NDP in 2011 when they “won” Official Opposition, and were similarly smug beyond all comprehension about it (so much so that they were going out of their way to break traditions and conventions around things like office spaces in the Centre Block to rub the Liberals’ noses in it). That we’re seeing more of this smugness around a loss make a return is yet another curiosity that I’m not sure I will ever understand.

This all having been said, here’s Colby Cosh talking about what lessons the UK election may have for Canada, including the desire to export brand-Corbyn globally.

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Roundup: Imagining something we already have

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

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

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

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

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QP: More Meilleur, more problems

While the PM was back in town, he chose to meet the civil service summer students instead of attending QP, meaning that Andrew Scheer’s big face-off was going to have to wait for next week. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read some condemnation about the government not voting in favour of an autism partnership. Jane Philpott noted that this was largely a provincial matter and then listed billions of dollars that were spent on programs. Scheer then moved onto a consular issue with a Canadian couple detained in China, and Chrystia Freeland noted her own concern with the case, and assured him that she has raised it at a high level and would meet with their daughter later today. Scheer switched to French to list some condemnation about Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination, including accusations that two of Joly’s staffers used to work for Meilleur. Joly reminded him that those in her office had no part in the selection process. Scheer switched to English to ask it again, and Joly reiterated her answer. Scheer tried again, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, tried to poke holes in the story that Meilleur did not have conversations about the appointment with Butts and Telford. Joly said that they did not have that conversation. Mulcair insisted then that Meilleur lied to Parliament, and demanded to know if Joly’s staff were consulted, and Joly reiterated that they were not part of the team. Mulcair returned to the supposed involvement of Butts and Telford, and Joly reiterated her previous answers. Mulcair’s final question spun up the torque on Butts’ supposed involvement, and Joly responded by listing Meilleur’s qualifications.

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Roundup: Holding BC’s horses

The fact that the BC NDP and the provincial Green party has come to a “confidence agreement” has everyone buzzing about what could possibly happen in that province, and whether it spells the end of the BC Liberals’ long reign, and the obligation on the province’s Lieutenant Governor. But because most people – including most of the journalists covering this story – don’t have a clue about government formation in our Westminster system, let me offer a few pointers.

The first point is right now, this agreement changes nothing. Clark is still the premier and has not resigned. The LG can’t simply dismiss her because there is a potentially viable alternate government with an added extra seat in the wings. It doesn’t work that way. All that this changes is that if Clark tests the confidence of the legislature and loses, the LG has an added option to consider when it comes to whether or not to grant dissolution and a new election. While yes, there is this agreement, the LG will also have to consider the stability of an alternate government and you’ll forgive me if I treat the promise of a four-year agreement on the Green supporting supply and confidence votes to be dubious at best.

Why? Because this is politics. First of all, the difference in seats is so slight that once the Speaker is taken into consideration, there may not be an appreciable difference in stability. MLAs will have to have perfect voting attendance lest the government fall on bad math or the inability to come to some kind of “gentleman’s agreement” on paired votes when MLAs are forced to be absent. And let’s face it – the Greens will only abide by this agreement so long as it suits them, and this being politics, the thirst for more influence comes quickly. How long before they decide they don’t like the other items on the NDP agenda? Before they have a personality clash with the NDP leader (which the Green leader made a big deal about during the election campaign, despite their big smiles during their press conference yesterday). How long before the NDP tires of Green demands? The agreement is a political promise, and is easily broken for the sake of politics. The LG likely knows this and would be advised to take the “four year” promise with a shaker full of salt.

It’s also notable that the two parties didn’t enter into a coalition agreement, which is part of what makes stability a real issue. The Greens were unlikely to want to be in a genuine coalition because of the issue of needing to adhere to cabinet solidary (and secrecy). They probably feel that they can throw their weight around more when they can public threaten to hold their breath until their “partners” accede to their demands, and this is significant for the sake of stability, despite the protestations that they want to make this work as a test case for proportional representation (even though PR generally necessitates actual coalitions).

And let’s not forget that Christy Clark is a formidable retail politician, and what’s going to matter is how she sells defeat or a request for dissolution. The narrative she builds will matter in the end, and we can’t underestimate that.

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Roundup: Stop berating members for doing their jobs

It’s not often that I write about provincial matters, and especially not from Manitoba, but this one I felt like I should make a remark because of the way in which the story is framed, which infuriates me to no end. The headline is “Stephen Fletcher criticizes his own government’s bill in Manitoba.” Fletcher, a former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister, is currently an MLA in the province, and a backbencher in the governing caucus.

Because I know that the vast majority of Canadians didn’t get a quality civics education, let me spell it out – it’s a backbencher’s job to hold the government to account. Yes, even if they’re from the same party. And in this case, Fletcher had concerns about a bill and has been asking questions about it at committee meetings late into the night. In other words, he’s doing his job. We should be encouraging this.

But what does the local Canadian Press reporter ask the premier? Whether Fletcher should be removed from caucus.

Great Cyllenian Hermes, luck-bringing messenger of the deathless gods, give me strength before my head explodes.

We The Media keep insisting that we want more independent elected officials, and we constantly fetishise things like free votes, and the moment an MP or MLA starts asking tough questions of their own party or steps out of line, we freak out and start wondering if the leader is losing control of their party, or in this case, whether they need to be kicked out of the party. In this particular case, the article goes on to say that this is the first crack in party unity. Are you kidding me?

When we elect members under the First-Past-the-Post system, we are imbuing them with individual agency. That’s why we elect them to single seats and not giving votes to parties to apportion those seats out to their MPs. We privilege the independence of MPs and empower them to do their jobs. Whether or not they choose to do so is the bigger part of the battle, because of the pressures of looking like a team player, but We The Media make it worse because we pull bullshit like this all the time. Our insistence on these ridiculous narratives and demands that our elected members all act in lockstep constantly while at the same time demanding independence is doing the system in. It’s driving the need for message control which is poisoning our democracy, because our own journalists have a tendency to be too ignorant of how the system is supposed to work.

Let MPs and MLAs do their actual work of holding governments to account, and stop causing trouble. Seriously. You’re actively hurting democracy with this kind of bullshit.

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Roundup: On foreign money in federal elections

Yesterday I mentioned a certain moral panic disguised as “journalism” authored by former Calgary Herald opinion editor Licia Corbella when it came to accusations about foreign money trying to influence the 2015 election. Anyone reading the piece should have clued into the fact that it was a hit-job, from the sympathetic portrayal of Joan Crockatt, the lack of corroborating evidence, the one-sided sources, oh, and the fact that it repeated the canard that the Tides Foundation was some kind of influence clearing house without actually digging into those numbers beyond their top-lines. And too many outlets ran with the story as is on the first day, and really only started to question it yesterday. VICE did a pretty good takedown of the claims, and when some of the other outlets started asking questions about that “report” with the accusations, the excuses for why it couldn’t be produced were…dubious to say the least.

This notion that there is a problem with foreign money influencing elections via third parties is also dubious, and while the Commissioner of Elections said he wanted the legislation tightened during a Senate committee hearing, a former lawyer form Elections Canada disputes some of the Commissioner’s interpretation of the law.

If more people had closely read Corbella’s piece in the first place, I think we could have avoided the pile on of hot takes that swiftly resulted on Monday. As a columnist, Corbella was a known fabulist, which is why this piece of “journalism” should have been treated with utter suspicion from the start.

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QP: Bell Island conspiracies

With Justin Trudeau on his way to the Microsoft conference in Washington State, and Rona Ambrose bowing out, there were only two leaders present for QP today. Candice Bergen led off, railing about the PM’s Xmas vacation — again — using the reach of a story about the island’s ownership to raise doubts. Bardish Chagger gave the usual reply. Bergen used this as a hook for a question to accuse Chagger of being the wrong person to be in charge of finding a new Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded her that the process is open and anyone can apply. Bergen insisted that the government was simply looking for Liberal donors, citing Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as Official Languages Commissioner. Diane Lebouthillier took this one, praising Meilleur’s record. Gérard Deltell was up next, worrying about the Infrastructure Bank and the search for a board despite the fact that it had not been created yet. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him of the value of the Bank, and that they wanted to gave board members ready to be appointed when the Bank’s creation was authorised by Parliament. On a second go from Deltell, François-Philippe Champagne took the opportunity to tout the Invest in Canada Agency that they were also looking for appointees for. Thomas Mulcair was up next, spinning a conspiracy about the tentacles of KPMG infiltrating everywhere, and Lebouthillier got up to note all of the measures they were taking to combat tax evasion. Mulcair asked again in French, and got the same answer. Mulcair then took a swipe at Meilleur’s appointment at Languages Commissioner, and Lebouthillier repeated her lines about Meilleur’s record. Mulcair demanded that Chagger recuse herself from the selection of the Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded him of the open process.

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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