Roundup: Not all omnibus bills are abusive

As if we needed another excuse for the opposition to blow their collective gaskets, the Liberal budget implementation bill clocks in at around 300 pages, and touches on several different Acts. In other words, it’s an omnibus bill.

“Oh!” They cry. “You promised you wouldn’t use them.”

Err, they promised not to abuse them, and in fact were careful in their language so as to not promise that they would never be used, because anyone who knows a thing or two about the legislative process knows that sometimes omnibus bills are necessary, particularly when it comes to housekeeping bills that clean up language across several acts, for example. What separates a proper omnibus bills from abusive ones are the fact that they are around a common theme, and can be studied by a single committee. This is where the Harper bills failed the test – while they claimed that they were under a single theme (i.e. implementing programmes mentioned in the budget), they touched on all manner of subjects that were not all under the purview of the finance committee, and this is really the key. When they put in sections that rewrote the entire environmental assessment legislation – under the dubious rubric of doing it for the sake of stimulating resource projects and thereby the economy, this was not something that the finance committee could necessarily study, and certainly not when the hundreds of pages and tight time-allocated timelines meant no time to do proper study of the various and sundry provisions. That is abusive.

From everything I’ve seen of this new budget implementation bill, it certainly looks like everything is all related to fiscal matters and would be under the purview of the finance committee to study. Yes, it’s 300 pages, which shouldn’t be the determining factor, and this is more about the opposition torqueing the issue in order to make it look like the government was breaking a promise when in fact they’re not included the kitchen sink into the bills in order to bully them through with as little scrutiny as possible.

What disturbs me more is the fact that like prorogation, “omnibus” is becoming a dirty word because the previous government took it upon themselves to abuse the practice, while my media colleagues haven’t done enough to disabuse the notion that just because a practice has been abused that it’s not actually illegitimate in and of itself. Prorogation is a routine practice for breaking up a legislative session and hitting the reset button in terms of plans and priorities, while omnibus bills have their uses (as we’ve already established). Just because Stephen Harper abused them to his own ends – which is party didn’t seem to be railing about as they are with this current omnibus bill – it doesn’t mean they’re all bad. This shouldn’t be rocket science, and yet, civic illiteracy is rapidly determining the narrative.

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QP: Back to helicopter questions

With the PM back from France, and business in the chamber was already hijacked by procedural shenanigans. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying that the PM had misled the House by saying that he had no choice by to take the private helicopter during his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island, to which Justin Trudeau deflected with his standard response that it was a personal vacation and he was happy to answer questions from the Ethics Commissioner. When Ambrose pressed, Trudeau added that he followed the RCMP’s advice regarding travel, but added nothing more, even on a third question, demanding clarification on the RCMP addition to the answer. Ambrose moved onto the question of Syria, demanding that sanctions be restored to Russia in a first step to remove Bashar Assad. Trudeau insisted that they were working broadly with the international community. When Ambrose pressed, Trudeau reminded her that the foreign minister was meeting with G7 counterparts on this very issue. Nathan Cullen and Karine Trudel returned to the helicopter issue, and Trudeau reiterated his same answer, in both official languages. Trudel then turned to the issue of court delays, and Trudeau responded with the same talking points that the justice minister gave yesterday, about working with a new process. Alistair MacGregor then demanded immediate marijuana decriminalization, and Trudeau reminded him that decriminalization does nothing to prevent it from getting into the hands of kids, or keeping profits out of the hands of the black market.

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Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

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

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

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Roundup: Not another special committee

And so the filibuster over potential changes to the Standing Orders rolls on, with no end in sight. Opposition House leaders presented an open letter yesterday calling for a new special committee to examine the issue with an eye to ensuring that it only comes out with recommendations achieved by consensus, but I’m not sure how bright of an idea that really is. After all, they’ll demand that it be composed in a similar manner to the Electoral Reform committee (to be faux-“proportional” and to get buy-in from the Bloc and Elizabeth May, naturally), and they’ll spend months and months hearing all kinds of expert testimony about how great parliamentary or legislative rules are in other countries only to doubtlessly come up with some the same kind of non-consensus that the ERRE report did, that every party will walk away from.

Bardish Chagger isn’t backing down, incidentally, and keeps insisting she wants a dialogue but won’t commit to consensus, probably because a) the committee look into making the Commons more “family friendly” wound up being a bust – which is for the best, really; and b) because she wants to try and fulfil the half-baked election promise about doing some kind of parliamentary reform, never mind that no reform is actually necessary of the kind that she’s proposing (with the exception of restoring prorogation ceremonies – that one we do need).

But I will reiterate yet again that our problem is cultural. Looking at rule changes won’t fix the underlying cultural problems, and this will be just another months-long waste of time when what all parties need to be doing is getting back to the core of Westminster parliamentarianism, and doing the sensible things of banning scripts and speaking lists, throwing out the time limits that obligate MPs to fill the time rather than engaging in spontaneous debate, and actually taking the legislative process seriously, which means ending the insane (and inane) focus on endless Second Reading debate. Repeating the ERRE exercise for the Standing Orders is just a black hole to be avoided, and all parties should back away from this fight (especially the Liberals).

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Roundup: Earnest Scott Simms

As is becoming a daily occurrence, we have yet another voice weighing in on the Standing Orders debate, and this time, it’s the mover of the motion that’s causing so much Sturm und Drang in the House of Commons (and the Procedure and House Affairs committee) right now – Scott Simms. Simms, I believe quite earnestly, insists that we need to give reform a chance, and he lists all of the wonderful things he hopes to happen out of Bardish Chagger’s discussion paper, and I believe he’s earnest because he has recently co-edited a book on parliamentary reform with noted notoriously wrong-headed would-be reformers Michael Chong and Kennedy Stewart.

Of course, nothing in these proposals will fix what ails parliament, and will only create more problems than it solves. We’ve established this time and again, and I’ve written a book to this effect, but the problems are not structural. MPs, however, don’t necessarily see that because they’re trapped in a sick and dysfunctional parliamentary culture and looking around for fixes, they see some levers that look easy to pull, never mind that those levers will make things worse. Digging into the underlying cultural problems are harder to see and do, and that’s why MPs have been assiduously avoiding them, but we shouldn’t let them get away with it. Granted, it would be far more helpful if more members of the media could see that fact as well and not get lured by the shiny reform ideas that keep getting floated around, followed by the drama of the outrage, which is all too easy to get sucked into. Because who doesn’t love drama?

So with all due respect to Simms, no, the time for being open-minded about these reform ideas has passed. We’ve lurched from one bad reform idea to another for the past half century (century if you want to count the granddaddy of all disastrous reforms, which the Liberals promulgated in 1919 when they changed the leadership selection process) and things haven’t gotten any better. It’s time to take that hard look at where things are situated, and means slapping MPs’ hands away from those shiny, easy-looking levers. It’s time to have a meaningful re-engagement with the system, and nothing in these discussion paper ideas does that. In fact, it does the opposite.

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Senate QP: With apologies to the minister

After delays from a number of votes in the Commons, Senate QP finally got underway, with special guest star Kent Hehr, minister of veterans affairs. Senator Larry Smith, the new Conservative leader, led off for his first time. Instead of asking the minister, however, he turned his questions to the Government Leader — err, “representative,” Senator Harder, for his remarks to CBC last week about “two classes of senators.” Harder assured him that it was not his intent to insinuate that all senators were not equal. He did not apologize, and Smith pressed the issue, and Harder talked about collaboration across the chamber but there was a different appointment process, and then gave a half-hearted apology for those who were offended by his words. Senator Plett got up to carry on the jabs at Harder, who kept insisting that he was trying to work collaboratively.

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Roundup: May’s problematic proposals

Green Party leader Elizabeth May decided to weigh in on the Standing Orders debate yesterday with a proposal paper of her own, considering Government House Leader Bardish Chagger’s proposal to have been an earnest trial balloon that has now blown up in her face and in need of moving on. May’s didn’t object to some of Chagger’s proposals, but came up with a few of her own, some of which are of dubious merit.

To start off with, however, May lards her paper up with a bunch of constitutional canards, such as the fact that political parties don’t appear in the constitution. If you hear the sound of my head banging on the desk, it’s because May is privileging the written Constitution Act as opposed to the unwritten constitutional conventions which are just as valid and just as important to our system of government, and are in fact foundational because that’s how our system of Responsible Government is expressed, and parties are foundational to that system. Just because they don’t appear in writing doesn’t mean they’re absent from our constitutional framework – they are fundamental to it, and May (and the scholars she cites) are simply obtuse to not recognise that fact. May then insists that the Westminster system has been distorted by parties gaining power and with presidential leaders, but rather than actually diagnosing where the problem is – the bastardized way in which we conduct leadership contests – she instead retreats to her usual hobbyhorse of the electoral system, which would not in fact solve any of the problems she identifies.

But if you make it past her civically illiterate pap, she digs into the suggestions with the most notable one being that she wants more concentrated sittings – five-and-a-half days a week for three to four weeks at a stretch, then three to four weeks back in the riding, insisting that this is also better from an emission standpoint since MPs would be travelling less. But where her logic here falls apart is saying that given this would stress families more that making it more attractive for families to relocate to Ottawa might be a consideration – but unless the families go back-and-forth on the three-to-four week rotations, being even more disruptive to children’s schools – then there is simply falls apart on the face of it. She also proposes that staffers be given compensatory time off instead of overtime, which seems far more unfair to these staffers considering that the work doesn’t stop when MPs are back in their ridings, and you’re forcing people (many of them younger) to work even more than they already do with less time off as a bit cruel.

May also proposes that a UK-style Fixed-term Parliaments Act be adopted, which officially makes her wilfully blind to the problems that it’s causing to Westminster’s operations, and the fact that it reduces the ability to hold a government to account because it requires a two-thirds vote to call an early election beyond a non-confidence vote with a simple majority. I get that she wants this to force parties to come to different coalition arrangements, but when accountability suffers, that’s a huge problem. But as with most of her suggestions for “improvement,” May is more concerned with her own partisan intransigence than she is with actual Westminster democracy, which is why I find her entire paper to be of dubious merit.

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Roundup: Top-down incentives

To the excitement of certain federal MPs, the New Brunswick government has decided that in order to encourage more women to run for the provincial legislature (currently there are a pathetic eight out of 49 MLAs), they are going to offer richer per-vote subsidies for parties for women candidates over male ones. While there is a school of thought that insists that this is a great way to get parties to put more women on the ballot, I remain unconvinced.

Part of the problem is that this is trying to impose a top-down solution, which defeats part of the purpose of how our system is supposed to work. Candidates are supposed to come from the ground-up, and candidates should be chosen by the local grassroots, which means giving them tools to help recruit more women (and other minorities). That means removing barriers on the ground, whether it’s being persistent in asking them to run (there is research that shows that you need to ask women an average of five times before they’ll say yes – a strategy the federal Liberals successfully adopted before the last election), or arranging childcare, or ensuring that your local fundraising networks aren’t excluding them because many women candidates don’t have access to the same kinds of networks. It means organizing on the ground, not simply naming or nominating women candidates from on high and expecting people to vote for them.

I will grant you that the New Brunswick Liberals think they’re being clever by tying the increased per-vote subsidy to women as a tactic that would incentive parties to run them in ridings where they’ll get more votes rather than in no-hope ridings (because it’s true that simply offering financial incentives or penalties based on the percentage of women running often results in women carrying those no-hope ridings), but it still smacks of a top-down solution that will result in accusations of tokenism – that they’re only running women so that the party gets more money rather than because she’s the best person for the job. Top-down impositions based on perverse incentives can’t and shouldn’t be the answer. The answer should be proper grassroots engagement and understanding the barriers women face so that they can be removed at the ground level. If we can do that, combined with getting a greater number of straight white male incumbents to step aside to give more space to women and minority candidates to take their places, we’ll find a better and more sustainable engagement with the system.

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Roundup: Recall legislation nonsense

Over at Loonie Politics, fellow columnist Jonathan Scott wonders if recall legislation might not be a good thing for ethical violations, and cites the examples of Senators Don Meredith, Lynn Beyak, and a York Region school trustee who used a racial slur against a Black parent. While I’m suspicious about recall legislation to begin with, two of the examples are completely inappropriate, while the third was an example of someone who resigned a few days later, making the need for such legislation unnecessary in the first place.

Recall legislation for senators is a bit boggling, first of all, because they weren’t elected to the position, and they have institutional independence so that they can speak truth to power and have the ability to stop a government with a majority precisely so that they can hit the brakes on runaway populism if need be. Recall legislation would be fed by that similar populist sentiment, which is a problem. I’m also baffled, frankly, how anyone could conceivably consider Meredith and Beyak in the same sentence. Meredith abused his position to sexually lure a minor, while Beyak said some stupid and odious things under the rubric of religious sentiment (i.e. at least some residential school survivors stayed Christians, so that apparently justifies everything). The two are not comparable, nor is Beyak’s example any kind of an ethical violation, nor am I convinced that it’s an offence worthy of resignation because at least there’s the possibility that she can learn more about why what she said was so wrong-headed. Sure, people are upset with it, while others are performing outrage over social media because that’s what we do these days, but trying to channel that sentiment into recall legislation raises all kinds of alarm bells because even if you had a fairly high bar or findings from an ethics officer to trigger these kinds of recall elections (and the suggested 2500 signatures of constituents is too low of an added bar), temporary performed outrage demanding action this instant would be constantly triggering these kinds of fights. If you think there are too many distractions in politics to the issues of the day, this would make it all the worse.

As for Meredith, while he is too shameless to resign of his own accord, the rest of the Senate is not likely to let this issue slide for too long. The only question is really how effectively they can implement a system of due process by which Meredith can plead his case before them and respect the rules of natural justice before they hold a vote to vacate his seat based on the findings of the Senate Ethics Officer. Demanding recall legislation after a story is only a couple of days old is the height of foolishness. The Senate doesn’t sit for another two weeks, which is time that frankly they’ll need to get their ducks in a row so that they don’t come back half-cocked and try and ham-fist the process like they did with Duffy/Wallin/Brazeau back in the day. Meredith will get his due, and we won’t need the threat of ridiculous legislation to try and keep politicians in line.

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Roundup: Carrying Russia’s water

The big story that had a number of people salivating yesterday was the screaming headline in the Globe and Mail that Chrystia Freeland knew her grandfather was the editor of a Nazi newspaper, which Freeland’s own uncle had researched, and to whom Freeland had contributed assistance to. VICE printed their own version of the story, making it clear that Russian officials have been shopping this story around for a while – remember that Freeland is persona non grata in Russia and target of sanctions – and added a tonne of context to the circumstances that Freeland’s grandfather would have found himself in, most of which was absent from the Globe piece because, well, it’s less sensational that way. And then cue some of the bellyaching that Freeland’s office wasn’t very forthcoming about some of this information when asked, the accusations that this somehow undermines her credibility, and whether or not this should be properly characterised as a smear when most of the facts are, in broad strokes, true (though again, context mitigates a lot of this).

The Russian connection, however, is what is of most concern to observers. Professor Stephen Saideman for one is cranky that the Globe very much seems to be compromising its editorial standards and is now carrying Russia’s water for the sensationalism and the sake of clicks. Terry Glavin is even more outraged because of the ways in which this plays into Russian hands, and any belief that we’re immune to the kinds of machinations they’ve exhibited in destabilizing the American electoral process (and now administration) and what they’re up to with far-right parties in Europe should be cause for concern. And to that end, Scott Gilmore says that we can’t expect to be immune from these kinds of Russian attacks. So should we be concerned? By all appearances, yes. And maybe we should remember that context is important to stories, and not the sensationalism, because that’s where the populist outrage starts to build, causing us bigger headaches in the long run.

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