Roundup: A northern populism

Every time I see someone writing about Canadian populist movements and the dismissive concerns that it could never happen here, I always shake my head because it does happen. To an extent, we are living through it right now. The Canadian Press has been doing some surveys to try and discover what the “northern populism” might look like, and while it’s not quite the same as the forces that brought Donald Trump into power, it nevertheless exists here.

Part of the difference we see is that in Canada, those populist forces are less white than they are in the States or in Europe, but the focus remains the same, which are the perceived ills of the liberal (big or small L, take your pick) “elites.” It’s not a secret that the way that Conservatives like Jason Kenney targeted ethno-cultural minority communities was by focusing on socially conservative issues, whether it was their reticence to embrace same-sex marriage, or things like marijuana, those were cues that helped them tap into those communities the ways that other populist movements haven’t, who are too busy dog-whistling to appeal to the more blatant racists. And while there are those undercurrents in Canadian populist movements, for which things like immigration remains a bugaboo, Canadian conservatives have managed to tap into a particular vein of “it’s not our immigrant community that’s the problem, it’s those other immigrants that are,” and that set up a kind of justification that “hey, we can’t be racists because these immigrants don’t approve of that immigration policy,” never mind that yes, immigrants can be intolerant of other racial or ethno-cultural minority groups that aren’t their own.

But populism is not a spent force in Canada. We saw how it operated with Rob Ford, and it’s alive and well in Alberta as they try to harness it into an anti-NDP political party. To an extent, the federal Conservatives and NDP have largely abandoned their own ideological underpinnings to be right or left-flavoured populists, and yes, there is a great deal of populist rhetoric underpinning the Liberal electoral platform, with appeals to this nebulous middle class that has no data to back up their claims (like stagnant wages for one spectacular example). Was Justin Trudeau able to harness it more effectively than his opponents? Yes. Does that mean that the scourge of populism that gave the Americans the Trumpocalypse is absent here? Not at all. That the composition is slightly different is an academic difference, but not reassuring in the least.

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Roundup: Demanding ATIP perfection may be the enemy of the good

I find myself torn about the government announcement on new legislation to amend the Access to Information Act because on the whole, they made most of the changes that they promised to, but they failed to uphold one promise, which was to make the Act apply to the PMO and minister’s offices. And yes, We The Media let them know how displeased we were about it.

Part of the problem here is that like so many of their other election promises, it may have been a stupid one – kind of like their promise around electoral reform. Why? Because it was always going to be problematic to promise access to cabinet documents, and there’s a very good reason for that, because much of that information should remain private because it will otherwise damage the ability for there to be unfettered advice to ministers or between cabinet colleagues, and they need to have space to make these kinds of deliberations, otherwise the whole machinery of government starts to fall apart.

Like Philippe Lagassé says, the better discussion would have been to have specific proposals as to what falls under cabinet confidence. Currently the Information Commissioner has some determination around that, and with the changes in this bill, the onus will be reversed – the government will need to convince her (and if that fails, the courts) that information should remain secret, as opposed to her having to take the government to court to get that access. That’s significant.

There is a lot of good in these changes, but I fear that it will be lost amidst the grumbling that it didn’t go far enough. And let’s face it – sometimes We The Media are our own worst enemies when we use Access requests for cheap outrage stories rather than meaningful accountability, and then wonder why the government suddenly clamps down and turns to message control, and worst of all, nobody wants to talk about that problem. That may wind up making things worse for everyone in the end.

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Roundup: Trudeau laying in the Senate bed he made

There is a renewed round of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Senate feeling it oats and flexing its muscles, and yesterday it was the Prime Minister doing it. Apparently deliberating and amending bills is fine unless it’s a budget bill, in which case it’s a no go. The problem with that is that of course is that a) there is no constitutional basis for that position, and b) if the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account by means of controlling supply (meaning the public purse), then telling one of the chambers that it actually can’t do that is pretty much an existential betrayal. So there’s that.

But part of this is not so much about the actual issue of splitting out the Infrastructure Bank from the budget bill – which Senator Pratte, who is leading this charge, actually supports. Part of the problem is the principle that the Senate isn’t about to let the Commons push it around and tell them what they can and can’t do – that’s not the Commons’ job either. As Kady O’Malley delves into here, the principle has driven the vote (as has the Conservatives doing their level best to oppose, full stop). But some very good points were raised about the principle of money bills in the Senate, and while they can’t initiate them, that’s their only restriction, and they want to defend that principle so that there’s no precent of them backing down on that, and that’s actually important in a parliamentary context.

As for this problem of Trudeau now ruing the independent Senate that he created, well, he gets to lie in the bed that he made. That said, even as much as certain commenters are clutching their pearls about how terrible it is that the Senate is doing their constitutional duties of amending legislation and sending it back, it’s their job. They haven’t substituted their judgment for those of MPs and killed any government bills outright and have pretty much always backed down when the Commons has rejected any of their amendments, and that matters. But it’s also not the most activist that the Senate has ever been, and someone may want to look to the Eighties for when they were really flexing their muscles, enough so that Mulroney had to use the emergency constitutional powers to add an extra eight senators to the Chamber in order to pass the GST – which was a money bill. So perhaps those pearl-clutchers should actually grab a bit of perspective and go lie down on their fainting couch for a while.

On the subject of the Senate, it’s being blamed for why the government hasn’t passed as many bills in its first 18 months as the Harper government had. Apart from the fact that the analysis doesn’t actually look at the kinds of bills that were passed (because that matters), the reason why things tend to be slow in the Senate is because the Government Leader – err, “representative” – Senator Peter Harder isn’t doing his job and negotiating with the other caucuses and groups to have an agenda and move things through. That’s a pretty big deal that nobody wants to talk about.

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Roundup: The looming retirement of the Chief Justice

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin announced yesterday that she would be retiring on December 15th, a few months in advance of her mandatory retirement date, in order to give the government enough time to find a suitable replacement. Why that date is significant is because it will be at the end of the Court’s fall sitting, letting her use the next six months that she is able to clear off the files from her desk and work on any outstanding judgments rather than depart mid-sitting and the organizational chaos that would follow.

The next steps are now an important consideration. The government will not only have to name a new Chief Justice, but a new judge from Western Canada (and likely BC given that’s where McLachlin was appointed from). And in order to keep gender balance on the court it will likely have to be a woman, and in accordance with this government’s push for diversity, it will likely be a person of colour, if not someone Indigenous (and let us not forget that said person must also be fluently bilingual, which is another self-imposed criteria that this government has made for itself). This may be easier to find in BC than it was in Atlantic Canada, mind you. And for Chief Justice? My money is on Justice Richard Wagner, whom I know many close the court have already tapped as being the successor if they had their druthers.

Of course, we’ll see if this government can get an appointment process back up and running within the six months. Experience has shown us that they seem to have difficulty with that, especially as there are still some sixty or so federally appointed judicial vacancies still remaining around the country, and a few of the Judicial Advisory Committees charged with finding candidates for said vacancies still not fully appointed either, which is a problem. Of course, they may be able to largely reconstitute the committee that oversaw the nomination of Justice Rowe, with Kim Campbell again in charge of the process, but I guess we’ll see how long that takes.

For more reaction, here’s Emmett Macfarlane on As It Happens and in the Ottawa Citizen, and Carissima Mathen on Power Play.

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Roundup: More BC Speaker cautions

The question of the Speaker of the BC Legislature remains up in the air, and continued word is that the Liberals are keeping their own out of the race lest they lose another seat as they test the confidence of the legislature, and with the Greens ruling out one of their own as well, that leaves the NDP left holding the bag when it comes to electing a Speaker. They’re obviously reluctant to do so, but it also reduces their chances of toppling the government and installing one of their own. And with that reality in mind, there is dark talk about the NDP turning the Speaker into a partisan if that happens.

This kind of comment is a real problem, because in a Westminster system, the conventions are the rules. And when people don’t see an issue with the Speaker breaking the convention that they only vote to break a tie, and in a manner that either keeps debate going or to preserve the status quo, demanding that an NDP Speaker topple the Clark government is a very big problem.

And if an NDP Speaker is elected but doesn’t opt to topple the government (and they very well should not for the sake of our system), it could leave Clark with little ability to govern, especially when it comes to passing supply, but that could be exactly what Clark is waiting for – an ability to go back to the electorate with great public regret. That said, she is under no obligation to simply accept defeat and turn over power to the NDP, especially with a precarious situation (signed confidence agreement or not).

I will add that the BC Liberals are under no obligation to put forward a name for Speaker. Federally, the Conservatives served two minority terms under Peter Milliken, a Liberal Speaker, with no ill-effect. So no, nothing is over or settled on this yet.

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Roundup: Paris Accord disappointment

The inevitable happened yesterday, where Donald Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris Accords – a process that could take up to four years – with the intention of immediately trying to renegotiate re-entry on more favourable terms. Why that makes no sense is because the Accords were flexible enough that each country was supposed to set their own targets, so there was no actual need for him to pull out other than to look tough, but what can you do with a chaos generator like that? Justin Trudeau was one of the leaders who immediately contacted Trump to express his disappointment, while Catherine McKenna said that Canada was moving ahead regardless, and would be hosting a ministerial summit with China and the EU in September regarding next steps with emissions reductions.

We are no doubt going to hear some grousing from the Conservatives over the next few days about this, with renewed caterwauling about scrapping the federal carbon tax (which is actual a national carbon price, and any tax would only apply to a province that doesn’t have a price of their own that meets the target – namely Saskatchewan at this point), and concern trolling about how this makes us uncompetitive. The problem, of course, is that industry is all moving in the direction of favouring carbon pricing because it allows for stability and predictability, and it’s also a market-based mechanism to drive innovation – something that sector-by-sector regulations don’t do. And indeed, the business community in the States, including some major oil companies, are reacting negatively to Trump’s decision, and the heads of several companies are resigning from Trump’s business council in protest. And it shouldn’t be understated that the potential for a clean tech is real with price incentives that carbon pricing provides.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron issued a statement in English, aimed to the Americans, inviting those scientists to France to continue their climate work there instead, which is a bold move.

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Roundup: Neglecting our Canadian Sovereign

It was Victoria Day yesterday, which is a uniquely Canadian holiday that both celebrates the “mother” of Confederation, Queen Victoria, as well as acts as the official birthday of the Canadian monarch (no matter when their natural person’s birthday is). You might find it strange to find that in his message for Victoria Day, the Governor General didn’t reference the Queen of Canada at all, but rather the forthcoming Sapphire Jubilee and her being the first British monarch to achieve it.

Why does this matter? Because the Queen of Canada is a separate legal entity from the Queen of the United Kingdom, and because the holiday celebrated the Queen of Canada’s official birthday. Now, there were quibbles with my tweet pointing out the fact that the GG made the omission, but I maintain that the bigger point stands.

And Lagassé is correct in that – the emphasis is curious, and part of a troubling trend from the Canadian government, which has only exacerbated since the Liberals came to power.

While the Conservatives did a lot to bring some of the focus back to the Canadian monarchy after a couple of decades of neglect and the conscious effort to “Canadianize” a number of institutions by dropping their Royal monikers (like the Royal Canadian Navy being changed into “Maritime Command” for example, until the Conservatives restored its original name), they too did their own damage to the institution, primarily when they made the utterly boneheaded decision to pass legislation that when it came to changing the line of succession to include female heirs and those who are Catholics, they merely assented to British legislation rather than amending it in Canada. In other words, they turned what was control over our own Crown and Sovereign, and undid all of the progress we’ve made since the Statute of Westminster in 1931, when the Canadian Crown became separate from the UK Crown, and turned us essentially into Tuvalu when it comes to our relationship with the Crown, and thus far, the Courts have sided with the government when it comes to the challenges of this legislation, because the appreciation of the distinction and the role of the Canadian Crown remains largely ignorant to the vast majority of Canadian society, the judiciary included. (Incidentally, that was another bill that the Commons passed at all stages with no debate, and while it was debated in the Senate rather than veto it and tell the government that the proper way to change the law of succession is by way of constitutional amendment).

Meanwhile, the current government hasn’t named a new Canadian Secretary to the Queen since the last one retired, and has been letting the republican bureaucrats in the Department of Canadian Heritage run roughshod over the relationship with the Royal Family. And because the vast majority of Canadians don’t know any better, we’re slowly killing our distinct Crown and turning ourselves back into a mere colony. So yeah, it does matter that the GG couldn’t get this very basic thing right, and we should be upset about it.

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Roundup: Removing a senator over dinner

It started with a dinner invitation. The Prime Minister invited all of the senators who had thus-far sponsored government legislation to dinner to thank them for their contribution and to, presumably, talk about Senate modernization, and how it was taking shape. One of those senators was a sitting Conservative, Senator Stephen Greene, who had sponsored Bill S-4, on a tax agreement between Taiwan and Israel. The Conservative Senate leader, Senator Larry Smith, decided that if Greene was going to dine with the Prime Minister, that he was out of the caucus. Greene said fine – I’m going to be an Independent Reform Senator.

Part of Smith’s impetus for this move is because the Conservatives in the Senate are trying to preserve the Westminster role of opposition in the Upper Chamber, and that’s not a small thing. And there is a push, led by those like the Government Leader – err, “representative,” Peter Harder, to try and do away with the traditional roles of government and opposition, so that you have one big body of independents, which some of us have a problem with.

The other part of the context here is that Greene has been pushing for reforms in the Senate that would do away with partisan caucuses, and this would have been the final straw for Smith.

I will add that I do think that there is a problem with trying to eliminate the roles of government and opposition in the Senate, and I do think it’s problematic that the government is getting independent senators to sponsor legislation – particularly government legislation, and most especially budget bills. Those should be shepherded by ministers, which the Government Leader should be as opposed to this farcical “government representative” nonsense. Co-opting independents in this way has been problematic not only from a procedural and accountability framework (because ministers should be able to answer on behalf of cabinet when they sponsor such bills), but we have had several instances of independent senators sponsoring these bills with the intent to move amendments to them right away, which complicates their role in sponsoring and defending those bills. Part of this is the growing pains associated with the new reality of the Senate, but it’s also a reflection of this stubborn refusal by the PM to properly appoint a Government Leader who is the point of accountability in the Senate under our system of Responsible Government. Harder is not that, and it is a problem, and what happened to Greene is a fracture point in this bigger issue.

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

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

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

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

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Roundup: A couple of thoughts on the BC situation

Given the (likely) minority government result in British Columbia last week, a number of people have been trying to game out various different scenarios for how this all might happen. Meanwhile, media everywhere are flocking to hear what the Green Party has to say, with their apparent balance of power, while Elizabeth May in Ottawa keep spouting this laundry list of things that apparently 57 percent of British Columbians voted for, despite the fact that there is no actual proof that those voters all voted for those very things, be it electoral reform or stopping the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. Nevertheless, when UBC economist Kevin Milligan asked my thoughts, here is what I told him:

I do think the fact that the legislature won’t sit until October is a key factor. BC has always been a bit weird about this, and there has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth from some political scientists over social media that there is a pattern of cancelling the spring session of the BC legislature and few people seem all that bothered about it, while Christy Clark seems to make it sound like it’s such a terrible imposition that they have to bother sitting at all, which is weird and uncool for a democracy.

There is a burgeoning convention that if it’s been six months, that it’s more likely that the GG or the lieutenant governor will call an election rather than entertain an attempt by the opposition to form government. And what I meant by how leaders perform in the meantime is whether there are any temper tantrums (particularly from the NDP leader, who has been fighting a reputation for being a hothead throughout the campaign), and that will weigh on how the public perceives any kind of government arrangement – we did live through this in Ottawa in 2008, and the fact that Harper mostly kept his cool while Stéphane Dion went apoplectic certainly helped Harper’s case with the general public. As I also mentioned, I have a suspicion that the Greens will try to overplay their hands in trying to get a bigger share of the governing pie, and making a list of demands that may not be saleable to Clark. Of course, the moment that happens, she has ammunition to go back to the voters to say “look at how unreasonable these people are, and they want to destroy the economy, so you need to give me a real majority mandate.” We’ll see if any of this happens, but this is pretty much what I have to say on the matter for now.

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