QP: Discounts and French villas

Hours after the mandatory Monday morning Liberal caucus meeting and the presser by Justin Trudeau, Bill Morneau, and Bardish Chagger on small business tax cuts, QP got underway, with the opposition smelling blood in the water. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read a demand in French for clarity on employee discounts as tax benefits. Diane Lebouthillier stood up to say that the document from CRA did not reflect the government’s position, and they would be reviewed. Scheer asked again in English, making a bigger issue out of this being a tax grab, and a Lebouthillier repeated her response in English — a rarity for her (which she has been working on). When Scheer asked yet again, Lebouthillier reiterated her response for a third time, but back again in French. Alain Rayes took another stab at the very same question in French, got the same answer, and then when Rayes tried to insinuate that she didn’t know what was going on in her department, Lebouthillier stuck to her points. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he raised the non-stories of Bill Morneau’s villa in France, and his company shares not being put into a blind trust (never mind that he followed the Ethics Commissioner’s instructions on the ethics screen instead). François-Philippe Champagne stood up to praise the small business tax cuts instead, and on a second question of the same, Champagne reminded him that he followed the guidance of the Ethics Commissioner. Nathan Cullen was up next, and wondered rhetorically about Liberal promise-keeping as damage control. Champagne praised the small business tax cuts instead, given that there wasn’t really a question there. Cullen raised the villa and the lack of blind trust, and Champagne reiterated that Morneau followed the Commissioner’s guidelines.

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Roundup: Trying to measure independence

As Senators have made their way back home for the summer, we’re having another round of them poking each other, like kids in the backseat of the car on a long trip, over just who are the “real independents” in the Senate. It’s getting a bit tiresome, especially with the Conservatives insisting that they’re the only ones because they vote against the government more often. The problem is that it’s a fairly flawed metric because they’re the Official Opposition and are supposed to vote against the government on a consistent basis. That doesn’t make them independent – it makes them the opposition.

The big problem with the metric about voting as a measure of independence ignores the broader procedural issues. If the government could really command the votes of its new independent appointees, then bills would be making it through the Senate a lot faster, and they’re not. The logistics of getting legislation through the chamber when you don’t have a whip who is organizing votes is one of the measures by which you can tell that these senators are more independent than the Conservatives in the Senate give them credit for. While the Conservatives, Senate Liberals and Independent Senators Group are getting better at organizing themselves in trying to come up with plans around who will be debating what bills when, the fact that the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, refuses to negotiate with those groups to prioritize some bills over others, has been part of the reason why some bills went off the rails and took forever to pass. If he did negotiate, or could command votes to ensure that bills could be pushed through when needed, I would buy the argument that these senators aren’t really independent. The fact that there is this lack of coherence in moving legislation is one of the markers in the column of greater independence. This is also where the argument about the need for an Official Opposition kicks in.

While the dichotomy of strict Government/Opposition in the Senate has been upended with the new group of Independents, ending the duopoly of power dynamics that contributed to some of the institutional malaise around the rules, I will maintain that an Official Opposition remains important because it’s important to have some focus and coherence when it comes to holding the government to account. Simply relying on loose fish to offer piecemeal opinion on individual pieces of legislation or issues risks diluting the effectiveness of opposition, and it also means that there is less ideological scrutiny of a government’s agenda, which is also important. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing, and the Senate has traditionally been a less partisan place because there was no need for electioneering within its ranks. Trying to make it non-partisan will not make it better, but will make it less effective at what it does.

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QP: Defence policy concerns

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

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QP: Infrastructure Bank blues

It was a grey day in the Nation’s Capital, and outside of the Centre Block, the lawn was littered with Catholic high school students bussed up to the Hill for the March for Life, with a couple of Conservative leadership candidates in the mix. Rona Ambrose led off, concerned about potential waste and duplication created by the Infrastructure Bank, and cited a KPMG report that the government commissioned (highlighted by a Globe and Mail story, of course). Amarjeet Sohi defended the Bank as delivering funds after a decade of inconsistent investment by the previous government. Ambrose suggested that the Bank was simply giving money to billionaires, but Sohi insisted that they were delivering for communities. Ambrose tried a third time, but Sohi listed possible projects the Bank could fund. Alain Rayes picked up the line of questioning in French, considering it “Sponsorship Scandal 2.0.” Sohi carried on with his points about what it could fund. Rayes railed about redacted documents around consultations conducted about the Bank, but Sohi insisted that the documents given to investors were all online. Matthew Dubé and Rachel Blaney worried about tolls associated with projects funded by the Bank in both official languages (Sohi: Your party has no plan for infrastructure), and then both turned to the KPMG report (Sohi: Here are some Canadian funds who want to invest in infrastructure).

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QP: Queen’s Park and conspiracy theories

While Justin Trudeau was off in Strasbourg, the rest of the Commons was filtering in, ready for the grand inquest of the nation. Rona Ambrose led off, asking what half-dozen things that the government had in mind that they said could be fixed about NAFTA. Bill Morneau responded by giving some vague generalities, and said that they would talk NAFTA when it comes up. Ambrose worried that the US was cutting taxes and red tape, but Morneau assured her that our economy was still very competitive. Ambrose railed about “Kathleen Wynne’s failed policies” and carbon taxes, to which Catherine McKenna listed companies creating sustainable jobs. Denis Lebel was up next, and worried about how the dairy sector would be impacted by NAFTA renegotiations, to which Lawrence MacAulay assured him that they supported supply management. Lebel switched to English to demand if the government still supported supply management, and MacAulay assured him once again that yes, of course they did. Thomas Mulcair was up next, raising the refugee claimants crossing the border. Ahmed Hussen assured him that there was no material change on the ground. Mulcair switched to French to claim that there were smugglers near the border, and this time Marc Garneau responded in French that they were working with authorities to address the situation. Mulcair then changed topics to accusations that the Liberals were accepting larger than legal donations, at which point Karina Gould reminded him that all parties have instances of overages and all parties pay them back. Mulcair persisted, insisting that the Liberals broke the law, and Bardish Chagger got up to remind him that any questions asked by the Ethics Commissioner would be answered.

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QP: Vague tax replies to disingenuous questions

While Justin Trudeau jetted off to Europe, other leaders were present for caucus day and most of the desks were full for QP. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying about the PM raising taxes while the Americans plan to lower them — a dubious premise at best. Bill Morneau responded by reminding her of tax cuts they made and the Canada Child Benefit to help families. Ambrose wanted an example of a fiscal policy changed with the dawn of the Trumpocalypse, and Morneau responded by talking about meetings they’ve had with American counterparts. Ambrose gave some vague concern about the deficit, to which Morneau noted the importance of making investments in the economy and the number of jobs created since. Ambrose decried the movement of the immigration case processing centre in Vegreville as an “attack on rural Canada,” to which Ahmed Hussen reiterated assurances that the relocation would allow for the creation of new jobs in the province. Ambrose noted that it would impact the entire town, but Hussen repeated his points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, decrying that the Liberals didn’t bring up Trump’s “hateful” policies on their trip and that they were doing nothing about things like people being turned away at the border, and Ralph Goodale stood up to assure the House that Mulcair was wrong, and that they were collecting data that could be used to deal with Homeland Security regarding these individual instances being reported at the border. When Mulcair asked again in French, Goodale retorted that repeating a falsehood didn’t make it true. Mulcair went back to English to raise that Muslim student turned away at the border but veered into ethics issues, and Chagger reminded him that the PM would answer all questions posed by the Ethics Commissioner. Mulcair wondered what their response would have been if Harper had been so accused, but Chagger didn’t change her answer.

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QP: Not taking the bait — or the guilt trip

At long last, the Prime Minister was present for Question Period, and the hope that he might have some answers. Rona Ambrose led off, asking about yet more fundraising allegations and claims that it is a way to meet ministers. Justin Trudeau did not take the bait, and assured her that there are strong rules that are being followed. Ambrose raised the potential of illegality with the donation to the Trudeau Foundation, and Trudeau said that he understands that there are questions, but moved right into his speech about the rules. Ambrose tried a third time, but Trudeau stuck to his message that Canadians can have confidence in the system. Ambrose raised the allegations that a fundraiser was done for the purposes of lobbying openly. Trudeau still didn’t bite, and assured her that the rigorous rules were being followed. Ambrose tried to throw Trudeau’s statement about talking about the need for investment at one of these events, but Trudeau stuck to the points. Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, said it was nice to see the PM without having to pay $1500, and asked yet another fundraising question, but Trudeau didn’t take his bait either. Mulcair switched to concerns that the Quebec Consumer Protection Act was undermined by C-29, and Trudeau got to change up his talking points, talking about the great things in the budget implementation bill. Mulcair asked if it was important for the PM to show up for Question Period, Trudeau reminded him that he has a lot of important duties, but he has a strong cabinet who can also take questions. Mulcair then asked if the PM was lying when he promised that 2015 would be the last election under First-Past-the-Post, Trudeau said that he had answered that in the positive — to much uproarious laughter at the verbal slip — and Trudeau pressed on to defend his coding exercise at Shopify as being a demonstration of investing in the economy of the future.

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QP: In advance of the fiscal update

Just before the fall fiscal update was to be delivered – in the Commons for the first time in a decade, mind you – Justin Trudeau was elsewhere, despite all other leaders being present. Rona Ambrose led off, raising the forthcoming fiscal update and wondering why the government was doubling down on its failed plan. Bill Morneau said that he was looking forward to talking about the long-term impact of their measures. Ambrose noted that the infrastructure plan only got one project going, but Amarjit Sohi disputed that characterization and praised the agreements with the provinces. Ambrose decried tax increases, and Morneau retorted with the tax cuts they put through in the last year plus the implementation of the Canada Child Benefit. Ambrose then tried to equate Trudeau’s cabinet with Kathleen Wynne’s staffers facing provincial charges as a segue to fundraising issues, and Bardish Chagger read her standard response about the federal rules. Ambrose changed to French and raised the Chrétien-era staffer who was found guilty for Sponsorship-scandal related fraud charges, and Chagger simply repeated her response in French. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking about police surveillance of a journalist in Quebec. Ralph Goodale responded about the gravity of the situation and the values of freedom of the press, which is spelled out in a ministerial directive. Mulcair pressed, and Goodale spelled out the Supreme Court five-part test. Mulcair moved onto fundraising, and Chagger repeated her standard response. Another round of the same got no different answer.

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QP: Building a conspiracy theory

Even though Justin Trudeau was not off to Europe for the CETA signing, he was not in Question Period, nor was Thomas Mulcair. Rona Ambrose led off, demanding transparency on the mission in Iraq, saying that the training mission has changed (never mind that it was always billed as “advise and assist.”) Marc Garneau answered, somewhat unexpectedly, and noted that it was advise and assist by that they needed operational security because Daesh was sophisticated. Ambrose tried again, and Garneau repeated the response, but added that a new medical facility in Iraq was being installed. Ambrose then moved onto fundraising and raising the spectre of the lobbying commissioner investigating, but it merely merited a recited response on the strict federal rules. Denis Lebel was up next and raised the issue of a veteran who faced discrimination for her sexual orientation, and Garneau reminded her that society had changed and they were working on a whole-of-government response. Lebel then moved onto the PBO report on the labour market and the loss of jobs reported. Jean-Yves Duclos noted that they were working on job creation. Tracey Ramsey led off for the NDP, decrying the EU trade agreement and the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. Chrystia Freeland read her astonishment at the lack of NDP support for a progressive trade agreement. Alexandre Boulerice asked again in French, raising the spectre of Quebec dairy farmers and drug prices, but Freeland’s answer didn’t change. Boulerice then raised the fundraising rules, Chagger gave her rote response on federal limits, and Tracey Ramsey gave another go in English for the same response.

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QP: Demanding a technical briefing

For a second day in a row, all leaders were present in the Commons, ready to go for QP after a morning of caucus meetings. Rona Ambrose led off, asking about the secrecy over whether our Forces were on the front lines in Iraq. Justin Trudeau said that their role in assisting and training was important and dangerous but necessary work. Ambrose worried that the lack of transparency with no technical briefings, and Trudeau noted the need for operational security. Ambrose asked again in French, got the same response. From there, Ambrose went onto fundraising and tried to link ministers going to fundraisers with the former system in Ontario, and Trudeau reminded her that there are strict and transparent rules. She pressed again, but Trudeau responded a bit more forcefully. Thomas Mulcair kept up the fundraising questions, calling activities “unethical” and wanted tougher rules into law. Trudeau reiterated the strict federal laws, and they went another round of the same in French. Mulcair then moved onto funding for First Nations children, demanding support for their Supply Day motion on the subject tomorrow. Trudeau spoke about respect and working in partnership and the noted the investments to date. Mulcair asked again in English, and got much the same response.

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