Roundup: The orgy of unforced errors

Word has gone out to Liberal MPs that there will be a mandatory caucus meeting first thing on Monday morning – a rarity given that mostly they wait until Wednesdays (especially as it makes it harder for those MPs who are from remote ridings to get there). The only thing that we know so far is that both Bill Morneau and the PM will be there, and the speculation is that it will outline the changes to their proposed tax changes based on consultations, but one can also assume that this is going to be about the ongoing self-harm that the government has been inflicting on itself over the various tax stories.

And what self-harm it’s been. On Friday, it was revealed that Bill Morneau forgot to declare that he also has interest in a company that owns a villa in France, and you can bet that the Conservatives took to this like a pack of dogs to fresh meat. This after the way that they refused to punch back against the gross distortions being promulgated about the proposed changes to the rules around Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations (CPCCs), or the refusal to provide real clarification around the CRA “folio” on certain employee discounts, preferring in each case to mouth the pabulum about fairness for the middle class. (Cute fact: the CRA “folio” has been up for months, was briefly discussed in the Commons finance committee last month, but only turned into a major crisis after a piece in the Globe and Mail. Because that’s now the Opposition Research Bureau, and it’s where the Conservatives take their daily outrage marching orders from, too lazy or incompetent to do their own research anymore).

And then there’s the added outrage over the fact that the government spent $221,000 on the cover of this year’s federal budget. Oh, how terrible and outrageous, and look at how plain the cover of Paul Martin’s budgets were, and then the Conservative chorus chimes in and makes these snide remarks about comparing the spending priorities between the two governments – completely ignoring the fact that they chose instead to spend even more thousands of dollars staging photo ops off of Parliament Hill to make announcements or give speeches where the Liberals will do it in the House of Commons, where they should be. Lindsay Tedds, mind you, offered up a sort of defence for why the Liberals may have chosen to go with this particular route on a budget design, which those in the throes of a paroxysm of cheap outrage, remain blinkered about.

So I guess we’ll see what emerges from that caucus meeting. Will they emerge with some better means of communicating their plans that won’t just involve more pat phrases about the middle class, and would maybe let them engage in some actual, authentic conversations that will push back against some of the nonsense being thrown around? Or will Trudeau lay down the law on his restless backbench and double down on the talking points that blandly say nothing at all, while they continue to let the Conservatives set the narrative using their own particular brand of spin, misdirection, and distortion? I guess we’ll have to see.

Meanwhile, here’s Colby Cosh raining down hellfire on that $210,000 budget cover, Chantal Hébert on the fire that Bill Morneau is taking, Andrew MacDougall on the Liberal’s inability to communicate their changes, and Paul Wells sees the continued litany of unforced errors as putting the government in danger of alienating the middle class that it so vocally venerates.

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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: Looking to punish a maverick

One Liberal MP broke ranks from and voted for the Conservatives’ Supply Day motion on extending the consultation period on the tax changes, and the media has spent the day salivating over it, and as has become usual, is playing the role of party whip better than the party whip himself. Because drama!

Said MP, Wayne Long, conspicuously made himself absent from national caucus yesterday morning, and made himself available to media, so it’s clear that he’s being a maverick and pushing his luck rather than keeping his head down and falling into line, but at the same time, I wonder if the fact that the media makes a Big Deal of these kinds of incidents just amplifies what he did (which shouldn’t be a big deal given that it wasn’t a confidence vote), but was simply a rather performative protest motion by the Conservatives as part of their campaign to sow confusion into the tax discussion. But my concern is that when the media goes out of their way to make a Big Deal out of this issue, chasing the whip across the Foyer to his office trying to get him to give a juicy comment about the whole thing, I fear that it sets up these public expectations that MPs who don’t always toe the party line should be ousted. We saw this in Manitoba over Steven Fletcher’s vote against his party on an issue that wasn’t one of confidence, but it was the media who kept reiterating the message that he should be thrown out of caucus, until the caucus did just that. It’s so very damaging to what we want out of our democracy, and for all that the pundit class protests that we want MPs to exercise more independence, We The Media are always the first to pounce when they don’t.

On a similar note, Kady O’Malley thinks we should stop calling it “embarrassing climb downs” when governments listen to criticism and make amendments to their bills and proposals. And like the salivating that happens when MPs break ranks, this too is always the narrative that crops up when governments respond to complaints and move to make changes to improve what’s on offer. It’s how democracy should work, and yet We The Media keeps reinforcing this message that listening and adapting is a bad thing. I have to wonder if we’re really our own worst enemies sometimes.

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Roundup: Provocation theatre

I have been giving a good deal of thought to this whole situation with Rachael Harder and the Status of Women committee, and it wasn’t until Andrew Scheer went on CTV’s Your Morning yesterday to decry the “intolerance” of Liberal MPs for a “strong, competent, dynamic young woman” that it started to click. “The Liberals are trying to politicize this. I actually find it disgusting that the Liberals would treat a young, female Member of Parliament in this way, and it just shows the intolerance of the Liberal party,” Scheer went on to say, which is hilarious because he’s the one who made the very political move of putting his critic into the role of committee chair, which is supposed to be a neutral arbiter of the rules and to facilitate discussion, and who isn’t supposed to vote other than to break a tie.

It was then that I finally understood what was going on. Andrew Scheer is trying to be a Dollarama knock-off Ann Coulter/Milo Yiannopoulos provocateur.

The signs were all there, from his preoccupation with free speech on campus, to his appropriation of the kinds of alt-right language being used to weaponize free speech across North America, and this move with Harder fits that bill entirely. I’m pretty sure that Scheer knew exactly what he was doing when he put someone who was avowedly pro-life into the Status of Women portfolio as a poke in the eye to the Liberals (for whom there are still some unhealed wounds over Trudeau’s dictate that the party is a pro-choice, full-stop), and it was an even bigger deliberate provocation to try and put her into the chair position of that committee, no matter how inappropriate it was to put a critic into that role. Of course, this is Scheer, so his timing has been inept enough that he created his own distraction from the tax proposal issue that he has been all sound and fury over (then tried to blame the Liberals for creating the distraction). It was also his way of provoking another round of discussion about the abortion issue without his having to deliberately raise it – he just ensured that the Liberals and NDP would do it for him, and he could stand back and accuse them of “politicizing” the issue, and then getting Harder to play victim.

Of course, some of the pundit class is trying to brand this as the Liberals being “in contempt of Parliament” (which is a specific Thing, and this is not it – and when you point that out, the correction is “having contempt for Parliament.”) Which is ridiculous. Walking out on votes is as much a parliamentary tradition as filibusters and any other procedural protest. And when it’s being done because someone wants to play provocateur in order to virtue signal to a portion of their base that they want to solidify, it’s all the more eye-roll inducing.

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Roundup: Exit the GG

With this being Governor General David Johnston’s last week on the job, and before we see the installation of Julie Payette as his successor next week, I thought I’d share this thread from Philippe Lagassé from the weekend on the job of being GG.

Meanwhile, that interview with Maclean’s that Johnston did last week also sparked a few thoughts from Lagassé as well.

While I think that Johnston was an okay GG, I do recall there being a few…brow-raising incidents early in his tenure, which most people seem to have glossed over. One was during a cabinet swearing-in shortly after one of the Harper-era elections, where reporters at Rideau Hall noted that he was doing a lot of high-fiving with newly sworn-in cabinet ministers, and while those on the scene tried to raise the issue over Twitter, it got swallowed by the news cycle shortly. (Remember that Johnston was appointed not long after he drafted very narrow terms of reference for the Oliphant Inquiry into Brian Mulroney’s dealings with Karlheinz Schriber, which again were curious at the time). The other incident for me that I found a bit curious was during an interview that Johnston had with George Stroumoublopoulos, in which Strombo raised the promotion of family as one of the things that Johnston was keen to promote during his time in office, and when he asked what that meant, Johnston replied that it started with the nuclear family. As someone for whom the nuclear family was never going to be an option, I found the response curious but it wasn’t really delved into. Nevertheless, Johnston’s tenure has been largely unremarkable, which was probably what those who appointed him were looking for after two previous Governors General that were media darlings and in danger of being a bit self-aggrandizing at times. We’ll see what Julie Payette brings to the role, and I look forward to her installation.

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Roundup: Arnold Chan and his parliamentary legacy

News was delivered yesterday morning that Liberal MP Arnold Chan has succumbed to cancer and passed away earlier that morning. The news is a blow for Parliament, as Chan was a very decent and well-liked MP who was serious about the dignity of the institution. Back in June, he delivered a speech in Parliament that was viewed at the time as a bit of a farewell (which he insisted that it wasn’t), in which he implored that his fellow MPs not only demonstrate their love of Parliament, but that they demonstrate it by doing things like ending the reliance on talking points.

At the time that Chan made the speech, I wrote a column about its importance, and why more MPs should heed his words. Scripts and talking points have been suffocating our parliament and our very democracy, and it gets worse as time goes on. That Chan could see their inherent problems and try to break the cycle is encouraging, because it hopefully means that other MPs will too. It’s one of the reasons why I hope that as part of honouring Chan’s legacy, MPs will work to do away with the rules in the Commons that have led to the rise of canned speeches, and that we can get to a place where debate is no longer a series of speeches read into the record without actual exchanges, and where MPs actually become engaged in the material rather than just reading the points that their leaders’ offices handed their assistants to write up for them. Parliament should be more than that, and let’s hope that others follow Chan’s lead.

Here are some more remembrances of Chan by his colleagues.

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Roundup: No, you don’t need a protected nomination

Apparently at the Liberal caucus retreat last week, the subject of the nomination process for the next election came up, and of course, MPs have plenty to say. Not that they’re telling the media, and while this Hill Times piece ended up being pretty thin gruel, mostly retreading their story on the push for protected nominations from early in the summer, I will use it as a chance to re-up my previous piece in Maclean’s about why protected nominations are a very bad thing in our system of government.

I’m sure all MPs like to think that they have very busy and important work to do in Ottawa (and they do!) and that means that they really can’t spare the time and attention that an open nomination would mean, but open nominations are not only a way to engage with the grassroots at the riding level, they’re also an important way of holding the incumbents to account within the party ranks, rather than simply at the ballot box. This means that there are multiple levels of accountability, which is a good thing for democracy. And I get that they need to be careful to delineate their work as MP and as the local party candidate, and that there are an increasing number of rules to enforce the separation between the two, but if they’re doing a good job, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain a healthy membership base that will support them. In fact, I would be concerned if my local MP couldn’t maintain a healthy membership base in the riding association because that means that those grassroots members are not being engaged and that is a very big problem for democracy. In other words, don’t ignore your grassroots, and if you are as an MP, then that means you’re not doing your job.

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Roundup: A shuffle and a split

So, there was that relatively small cabinet shuffle yesterday, some of which was telegraphed in advance, some of which became the subject of wild speculation as Trudeau seemingly threw in a couple of red herrings for the pundits to go wildly chasing to no end (LeBlanc and Wilson-Raybould especially). In the end, the new faces are Seamus O’Regan at Veterans Affairs and Ginette Petitpas Taylor to Health, while Carla Qualtrough moves to Public Services and Procurement, Kent Hehr takes over sport and disabilities, and in the biggest move, Jane Philpott moves over to a split Indigenous Affairs portfolio, so that Carolyn Bennett now becomes minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Philpott becomes minister of Indigenous Services. While it’s hard to say that Hehr’s move is anything but a demotion, O’Regan’s move is being noted both for his close friendship with Justin Trudeau, as well as his move from rehab to the cabinet table, for what it’s worth. Also of note is the fact that new mandate letters will be forthcoming in the next few weeks, while there was a bit of panic when the old ones were re-issued with new names for the time being.

The real news is the fact that Bennett and Philpott’s joint mandate will be to ultimately dismantle Indigenous and Northern Affairs and to create two separate departments that will move the files toward greater self-governance and be a less paternalistic structure for Indigenous communities to deal with – especially since the current structure does not currently suit the North well for Inuit communities, or Métis. Complaints about the creaky bureaucracy hampering the Indigenous file are constant, and structural reform like this is probably the next logical step in moving those particular files forward, but there are already detractors moaning that this will just mean double the bureaucracy and double the obfuscation. Maybe. I’m also dismayed by commentary from the likes of Hayden King who dismiss what the government has done to date as being symbolism and process. Why that bugs me is because process is important. Democracy is process. Changing the fundamental ways in which things happen – i.e. process – is important can’t just be shrugged off because it doesn’t turn into an instant fix. These kinds of issues are systemic and stubborn, and sometimes changing process to get the wheels turning is actual progress, even if it takes a while to see the results. None of this happens overnight – indeed, dismantling INAC won’t either, and step one is yet another consultation process on what the end goals are going to look like so that they can make the split with those in mind. And no doubt, we’ll hear yet more naysayers, but these are changes that will take time to happen.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde is happy with the change as a next step to dismantling the Indian Act. Susan Delacourt sees Trudeau keeping his friends close in this shuffle, while Chantal Hébert notes that the Canada-US files remain untouched in the shuffle, which points to how Trudeau is targeted isolated problems while looking to stay the course with the NAFTA talks. Paul Wells looks at Jane Philpott as this government’s go-to fixer, while Aaron Wherry notes the two doctors now in charge of the Indigenous portfolios and what that may mean.

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Roundup: Freeland brings the vague

The morning belonged to Chrystia Freeland yesterday, starting with her speech on NAFTA renegotiation at the University of Ottawa, followed by her appearance before the Commons trade committee to answer questions – however vaguely – about what the country’s priorities were. And while she did list ten things that Canada is looking for (compared the American wish list of 100 items), she didn’t bow to opposition pressure to negotiate in the media, or to lay out which of the items on that list were merely for show, whether that’s the proposed chapter on gender or Indigenous issues. It was driven home several times that yes, Supply Management is going to be defended (no matter how many times the different opposition parties have tried to play the game that only they truly love the system). And as for talk about things like harmonizing regulations – a constant promise that never seems to make much progress no matter which government is in power in either country – it has become clear that this is something that the government began doing their homework on since Trump began raising trade issues in the 2016 US election.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells evaluates Freeland’s deliberate vagueness in what she was trying to convey about the talks, while Andrew Coyne wonders if the Canadian government’s wishlist isn’t a deliberate attempt to sandbag the talks from the start, possibly in the hopes of keeping things status quo.

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