QP: A smarmier version of Matlock

The first proto-Prime Minister’s Questions of the New Year, with Justin Trudeau finally in town on a Wednesday, and Andrew Scheer was once again no longer present. That left Lisa Raitt to leave off, who was worried that offshore investment into marijuana companies was not the front companies for organised crime. Trudeau stumbled off the block, and gave his worn points about why they are legalising marijuana. Raitt called out the talking points, but along the way, equated former Liberal fundraisers with organised crime, but Trudeau didn’t vary his response. Alain Rayes was up next, and in French, accused Liberal fundraisers of trying to line their pockets though cannabis and accused the government of interfering with debate in the Senate,  it Trudeau stuck to his points in French. Rayes tried again, and this time, Trudeau said that they could assure people that they were not letting organised crime into the system. Rayes went one last round, asserting that legalised marijuana was somehow the new Sponsorship Scandal, but Trudeau reminded him that the previous prohibition model failed. Guy Caron was up next, and kept on the same line of attack, highlighting tax havens, and this time, Trudeau picked up some notes to say that they have been coming to agreements with provinces to provide transparency on corporations and that they were doing background checks on any significant investment in cannabis companies. Caron went again in French, railing about Liberals and tax havens, but Trudeau repeated the assurances in French. Pierre-Luc Dusseault asked the same question again, to which Trudeau assured him that they had an information network to combat tax avoidance and evasion, and when Peter Julian asked one more time, Trudeau picked up his notes again to assure him that there would be mandatory security checks with companies.

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Roundup: Harder threatens hardball

A curious development happened in the Senate yesterday, where the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, decided to threaten to play hardball for the first time. Harder moved a motion that would send the marijuana legalisation bill to three different committees by March 1st, with an aim to have them report back to the Chamber by April 19th. The threat? That if they don’t agree, he’ll resort to time allocation (which may be an empty threat if he can’t get the votes to do so). While there are questions as to why the “haste” (though I would hardly call it such), the supposition is that the government wants this passed before summer, despite the fact that there will be an eight-to-twelve-week lag between royal assent and retail sales. Now, one could point out that the Senate rose a week early before Christmas and could have done more of their second reading debate beforehand (along with the other bills on the Order Paper), and maybe they should have been more conscious of the timeline then, but that’s now past.

While I’m not opposed to one-off timeline negotiations, I do find myself concerned by some of the tone of Harder’s release, one line of which reads “Sen. Harder said he is also concerned that opponents may behave in a partisan fashion to delay review of the bill.” Why is this concerning? Because it’s part of his larger plan. After the Speaker ballsed up the procedural motions around the national anthem bill (which saw the motions go through that day rather than the three of four weeks of delays that were anticipated), the Conservatives are angry and threatening to delay legislation, and that in turn is giving Harder the ammunition he needs to push the Independent senators to agitate to change the rules to eliminate the government and opposition roles in the chamber, which is a very bad thing for parliamentary democracy. But the Conservatives can’t help themselves, and keep insisting that they’re just ensuring through examination of the bill, as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Of course, bringing up the anthem bill is not the same thing as it was a private members’ bill and there was no real mechanism for Harder to move it forward, whereas he has tools for this bill. But, as with anything, false equivalencies to prove a point are part of the game if people don’t know any better.

And if the Conservatives don’t think that they’re signing their own warrants for the demise of opposition by continued procedural gamesmanship, then they had better wake up because the ISG is rousing itself to go on the warpath for these rule changes. Being a little more strategic in their partisanship and tactics would be advisable because the reckoning is coming.

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Roundup: What Stephen Harper knew

Some more explosive revelations last night, as Maclean’s acquired and published the internal emails of the Conservative campaign team when it came to their dealing with the matter of Rick Dystra’s nomination in the midst of his allegations that he sexually assaulted a staffer in 2014. Shortly after that was released, statements were put out by Ray Novak and then Stephen Harper himself to give their own versions of what they knew and the decisions they took at the time, and why they justified keeping Dykstra on (though he eventually lost his seat in the election).

Amidst all of this, Jen Gerson has a very incisive column on the culture of politics, where sex and booze are the comforts of people away from their homes and families in a cloistered environment that has a frat-boy air to it all. And why nobody acts when it comes to allegations that “everyone knows” about, such as those related to Patrick Brown, is in part because gossip is part of that culture, and where information is power, compounded by the tribalism that comes with partisans who want to protect their own – while spreading dirt about their enemies – makes it difficult to know what to take seriously (and which is why the Erin Weir situation is probably an overreaction, whether justified or not). It’s a worthwhile read that tries to put the past couple of weeks in some better context than we’ve been getting with piecemeal stories coming out, and discussions around the environment on the Hill that don’t take cultural context into consideration as to why it persists beyond just simple power imbalances.

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Roundup: Oprah and the rot of populist politics

As a rule, I don’t really comment on American politics, but this issue of Americans clamouring for Oprah Winfrey to run for president in 2020 has been getting a lot of press lately. Colby Cosh runs through why it was probably a trial balloon that fortunately deflated, while Rachel Giese worries that the dismissal of the possibility amounts to more racism and sexism rather than dealing with some of Oprah’s ability to connect with people. And she does have that – I used to darkly muse that Oprah could almost certainly run for president and win because back when I worked in book stores during my undergrad years, and every time Oprah mentioned a book, we would be inundated with calls and demands for said tome. Early on we weren’t given advance notice, and it was a gong show, and after she alerted publishers beforehand and we were sent ample shipments of said volumes in time for the show to air, it was more manageable chaos, but it never failed to surprise me with how much she had an ability to influence the viewing public’s shopping choices, and made me wonder how far that power could be extended.

But the fascination with celebrities running for office is not new or novel, and is part of a sign of the deeper rot of populism within our political discourse. The distrust of the political class and career politicians has long been sown by populists, and Canada is no exception. Conservative MP Michelle Rempel penned her own op-ed to talk about this urge for celebrities to be political saviours, and outlined her own particular list of what it takes to make good political leaders (including a few subtle digs at Justin Trudeau in there, naturally), but while she talks about the disconnect that people have between their ability to examine government as its role in our lives has expanded exponentially over the past seventy years, she misses one key point – that Canadians aren’t taught how to engage with the system.

Because we aren’t taught anything other than the fact that you mark a ballot every three or four years, we don’t know how to nominate candidates that speak to our values or that better reflect the diversity in our communities. We don’t understand how the role of joining parties creates a relationship with the caucus because the party creates an interlocutor role between those who are serving in Parliament or in government and those on the ground. We aren’t taught how the act of joining parties entitles us to take part in policy discussions that shape where we want the party and the country to go. All of those are huge ways of engaging in our system of government, but we’re largely not taught them in school, which fuels the disconnect that people feel, which drives people to populists, whoever they may be. Because celebrities are comforting, familiar figures, people will flock to their siren calls, oblivious to the danger of smashing against the rocks they perch upon. It’s why we need proper civics education, so that we can combat the ignorance that fuels the willingness to entertain this celebrity nonsense.

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Roundup: No knockout punch from Dawson

As expected, former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s appearance at the Commons ethics committee yesterday was a show for the cameras. Throughout the hearing, opposition MPs kept trying to get Dawson to insist that it was a big deal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules, and she kept rebuffing them, not giving them the clip that they were looking for. Because really, ever since former Auditor General Sheila Fraser remarked that the Liberals “broke every rule in the book” when it came to the Sponsorship Scandal, reporters and partisans have been trying desperately for another officer of parliament to give them a similar line (kind of like how everyone keeps looking for a “knockout punch” in a leadership debate that won’t ever come). Dawson also wouldn’t play ball when it came to the Conservatives trying to insist that the PM repay all of the costs of the vacation, and in fact seemed to defend some of them, so too bad for that attempted clip.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some value in the exercise. For example, while the PM and Dawson will dispute the extent of Trudeau’s friendship with the Aga Khan for the purposes of the Act, had she agreed that they were close personal friends, Trudeau would have been found to have contravened the Act in another fashion when he sat in on two meetings related to the Aga Khan Foundation (even though she didn’t find that he unduly influenced those meetings based on his relationship). Nevertheless, the “friends” exception in the legislation was cause for some level of debate and indeed consternation among MPs, but it’s something that Dawson thinks they might as well just get rid of in the statute.

And amending the Act was part of the discussion as well, both with regard to closing loopholes, and the discussion on penalties. Regarding loopholes, Dawson said that she needed to interpret that Morneau was within his rights to indirectly hold his shares in holding companies because she had previously recommended that said loophole be closed (and, shockingly, MPs ignored the suggestion). If she suddenly interpreted the legislation differently, that would have been a problem, hence her need to apply the law in a consistent manner. Regarding penalties, Dawson said that she feels that naming and shaming political figures is punishment enough, which didn’t sit well with MPs who wanted a sliding scale of penalties to demonstrate the severity of the offence. (Andrew Coyne also advocates “meaningful penalties” but won’t say what qualifies). The problem with this, of course, is that it turns any violation into a political circus as MPs fall all over themselves to demand the stiffest possible penalties for their opponents in order to score points, ignoring that the whole exercise is one designed for political consequences, which Trudeau has and continues to face. The other aspect is that greater penalties also create the conception that these are criminal sanctions, which the opposition has already been exploiting with language about how Trudeau “broke federal laws” to give the impression that he has committed a criminal offence (which he has not). Changing the rules to encourage this kind of demagoguery doesn’t help our ethics system in the slightest, and would probably do far more harm than good in the interest of scoring a couple of cheap points.

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Roundup: Turning down the committee

It was pretty much as expected. The Commons ethics committee met yesterday and the opposition MPs assembled pleaded with the Liberal majority on the committee to think of the children – err, I mean, think about the meaning of holding the government to account when it came to the demand to call for the PM to appear to answer questions about the Ethics Commissioner’s findings regarding his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island. I will grant that the Liberals could have insisted that they go in camera for this, but didn’t. Rather, they simply said that, having read the report, and taking into account that the PM had apologised, answered questions in the media, and would be answering questions in QP on this topic, that it was enough. And so the motion was defeated 6-3, which surprised no one.

From the arguments presented, there is a little more that we could dig into. For example, Nathan Cullen said he wanted the PM’s suggestions on how to improve the rules – but if he cared about those, he would have taken the many suggestions that Mary Dawson has been making over the past decade and implemented those, but he, nor his party, nor any parliamentarian, has been keen to do that. And his worrying that the PM is ultimately accountable to parliament is true, but that ultimately means that if Cullen is so concerned, he can move a motion of non-confidence in the PM on the NDP’s next Supply Day and try to convince the Liberal ranks of the merits of his argument. As for the Conservatives, they seemed far more interested in seeing some grovelling the PM, and demanding that he repay the full cost of the trip (which would include the Challenger and security costs), never mind that during the Harper era, his “reimbursement” for his own private trips was supposed to be at economy fares, but nobody could find fares as low as the ones he was repaying (and there were several incidents of party stalwarts getting subsidized airfare improperly). And that whole incident nearly six years ago when they wanted Harper to appear to answer questions on the ClusterDuff Affair? Well, that was then and this is now, and Trudeau promised to be more open and transparent. (Err, remember when Stephen Harper rode into office on the white horse of accountability and transparency? Yeah, me neither).

And while opposition staffers chirp at my on the Twitter Machine about how it’s the role of MPs to hold the government to account – true – and that a committee setting is less theatrical than QP – not true – I will reiterate that the point of this exercise is not actually about accountability, but rather about gathering media clips under the protection of parliamentary privilege. If you think there would be sober questions asked, and that this would be a serious exercise in accountability, then you’re sorely mistaken. It remains a political calculus, and Trudeau has determined that it’s not worth it to spend an hour having the most torqued accusations hurled at him in the hopes that something sticks, and hoping for that “gold” clip that they can share around social media. If we’re going to lament the lack of accountability, then everyone needs to take a share of responsibility there – not just the PM.

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Roundup: The emancipation of Lynn Beyak

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, along with his Senate caucus leader, Senator Larry Smith, announced last night that troublesome Senator Lynn Beyak had been kicked out of caucus after she refused to remove blatantly racist “letters of support” from her website. In true Scheer form, he not only didn’t effectively manage the situation, but waited until there was a media storm before he backed down, just as he did with deciding not to give any more interviews to Rebel Media post-Charlottesville, or having to back down somewhat on his campus free-speech zealotry in the wake of another incident (though he did get back on that bandwagon again after the whole Lindsay Sheppard incident).

While this move was met with a number of people saying “better late than never,” I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that he’s just created a monster now that Beyak no longer has any kind of adult supervision. Indeed, I suspect that he’s just made a martyr out of Beyak, who can now claim that she’s a victim of “political correctness run amok,” and she will quickly attract a group of odious racists and free speech absolutists, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she’ll be yet another Jordan Peterson-like figure (though likely without the need for the Patreon account, given her Senate tenure).

But that Senate tenure is exactly why this situation should have been better managed, and why expelling her from caucus was possibly the wrong thing to do. At least inside of caucus, she could have been managed, and if they had been on the ball, they should have had a better handle on what she was posting to her website and had it locked down long before now, using whatever means of coercion are available to party and Senate caucus leadership. After all, taking her off of committees didn’t seem to do the trick, but I’m not sure what kinds of measures they were using to manage her once that happened, if any. And that’s key, because as someone who has institutional independence and can’t be fired, managing her was the best possible thing that they could have done rather than letting her continue to court racists. (This being said, the fact that she was viewed as a Pollyanna figure by some of her fellows was probably why they didn’t think they needed to manage her as closely, and look what happened as a result).

Beyak is likely to continue to sit as a non-affiliated Senator, as we can be assured that the Independent Senators Group will want nothing to do with her, especially as they have a new rule that means that they need to have a two-thirds vote to admit her into their caucus. While people will howl for her to resign, I sincerely doubt that she will, given that she’ll have a new crowd of adherents that will flock to her now. She can’t be expelled from the Senate unless she’s convicted of a serious crime or is found to be in violation of Senate ethics rules, and there’s nothing to suggest that she would be (not to mention that there will be great reluctance to push her out for what she’s said, no matter how odious it may be, because free speech is greatly valued in the Senate). Trying to have her charged with hate crimes isn’t likey to work as I doubt she meets the bar for that, and dragging her before the Human Rights Tribunal will make her an even bigger martyr with the free speech absolutists. And so now we’ll be stuck with her until February 2024, because the party leadership couldn’t figure out how to properly manage a problem like her. Well done, guys.

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Roundup: On Scheer’s tolerance

It’s been a day since the Globe and Mail interview with Andrew Scheer came out, and yet I haven’t been able to shake some of what he says in the piece, particularly about how his is supposedly the more “tolerant” party. In it, Scheer lists a couple of areas where he lists the virtues of his party’s tolerance – for anti-abortionist views, and his curious view about how to deal with the LGBT question with a party that welcomes social conservatives. On the former, Scheer used the opportunity to re-litigate the issue of trying to appoint Rachael Harder to the chair of the Status of Women committee (never mind that the committees are supposed to pick their own chairs, and that it made no sense to put the critic in the chair position, since the chair is ostensibly supposed to be neutral, which your critic should not be). Why is this example salient? Because it was an example of Scheer acting like a Dollarama knock-off brand provocateur, trying to deliberately set off the leftist opponents to demonstrate how intolerant lefties are in the style that the alt-right has become so fond of doing. Just because your party’s values include social conservatism doesn’t make you more tolerant, particularly given how they denounce other small-l liberal values as “virtue signalling” and so on. Having different values is why different political parties exist.

The part that stuck in my craw a little more was Scheer insisting that just because he doesn’t want to march in a Pride parade, it doesn’t mean that he’s not supportive, pointing to his motion to condemn Russia for the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya, and the fact that he supported the apology to those persecuted LGBT Canadians. What gets me is that he’s patting himself on the back for the bare minimum – that people don’t deserve to die or be persecuted. But what this does is miss the difference between equality on paper, and substantive equality, and this is something that the Conservative government seemed to struggle with as well. We don’t want other countries to kill gays, but we won’t do anything to meaningfully advance their equality, so they can stay second-class citizens. Or as I sometimes darkly muse, why kill the gays outright when your systematic marginalizing of them drives them to depression, addiction, and suicide instead? And to make it clear, Scheer’s language of “tolerance” is just that – being seen to tolerate something that much of his party’s base finds distasteful, and tolerance is a far cry from respect. So you’ll forgive me if I find Scheer’s assurances that he is “supportive” to ring entirely hollow, because that’s not the language or actions of support.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail’s editorial board did call out Scheer for his contradictions in that interview, questioning whether he really is the right person for the job.

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Roundup: Will American tax changes affect us?

With the excitement building over that coming US tax cut legislation (if one can call it that), we have already started seeing reaction here in Canada about how we should react, and while there has been some predictable demands that we start cutting our own corporate taxes yet again, others have called for a more pragmatic approach. In the Financial Post, Jack Mintz foretold doom for our economy in the face of these changes. With that in mind, Kevin Milligan tweeted out some thoughts:

It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that these changes will create all manner of new loopholes around personal incorporation to avoid paying income taxes – kind of like Canada has been cracking down on this past year. Imagine that.

To that end, Milligan offered a few more thoughts about the experience around implementing these kinds of changes.

Meanwhile, my Loonie Politics column looks at whether the process used by that American tax bill could happen in Canada. Short answer: no.

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Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

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