QP: Bell Island conspiracies

With Justin Trudeau on his way to the Microsoft conference in Washington State, and Rona Ambrose bowing out, there were only two leaders present for QP today. Candice Bergen led off, railing about the PM’s Xmas vacation — again — using the reach of a story about the island’s ownership to raise doubts. Bardish Chagger gave the usual reply. Bergen used this as a hook for a question to accuse Chagger of being the wrong person to be in charge of finding a new Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded her that the process is open and anyone can apply. Bergen insisted that the government was simply looking for Liberal donors, citing Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as Official Languages Commissioner. Diane Lebouthillier took this one, praising Meilleur’s record. Gérard Deltell was up next, worrying about the Infrastructure Bank and the search for a board despite the fact that it had not been created yet. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him of the value of the Bank, and that they wanted to gave board members ready to be appointed when the Bank’s creation was authorised by Parliament. On a second go from Deltell, François-Philippe Champagne took the opportunity to tout the Invest in Canada Agency that they were also looking for appointees for. Thomas Mulcair was up next, spinning a conspiracy about the tentacles of KPMG infiltrating everywhere, and Lebouthillier got up to note all of the measures they were taking to combat tax evasion. Mulcair asked again in French, and got the same answer. Mulcair then took a swipe at Meilleur’s appointment at Languages Commissioner, and Lebouthillier repeated her lines about Meilleur’s record. Mulcair demanded that Chagger recuse herself from the selection of the Ethics Commissioner, and Chagger reminded him of the open process.

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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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QP: Defence policy concerns

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

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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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QP: Rage over $2000 worth of cardboard

With the weather finally taking a turn for the better, and the floodwaters across the river receding, things in the House of Commons carried on in the usual fashion. Rona Ambrose led off, wondering why the Infrastructure Investment Bank was necessary. Trudeau pointed out how they had consulted widely on the Bank, and that it was going to be helpful for growth. Ambrose called it a vanity project to help Bay Street and Wall Street friends, and made a dig about Broadway tickets along the way, and Trudeau reiterated the points about the need for infrastructure projects like the Bank would help provide. Ambrose brought up potential conflicts with the Bank, and Trudeau rebuffed by slagging off the previous government’s underfunding of infrastructure. Ambrose took another dig at the Broadway tickets, and Trudeau expounded on how great and important the play “Come From Away” is. For her final question, Ambrose asked about the government ordering cardboard cutouts of the PM — and made a bunch of lame puns along the way — and Trudeau said that individual missions abroad make their own decisions. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worried that the government hadn’t spelled out how private investors in the Infrastructure Bank would profit from their infrastructure. Trudeau talked about the great things that the Bank could invest in, but didn’t specify that there would be tolls on everything. Mulcair wondered how the Liberals would have reacted if the Conservatives promoted the idea, and Trudeau insisted that they consulted widely on the Bank, not just hedge funds. Mulcair changed topics and worried about tech stories that it was Jared Kushner who reached out to Trudeau to convince President Trump not to rip up NAFTA. Trudeau reassured him that they were working to strengthen trade and relations with the Americans. Mulcair went onto suggest that Trudeau was taking orders from Kushner, and Trudeau insisted that he was doing everything he could to resolve issues like softwood.

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QP: Attempting a defence pivot

After the introduction of the five new MPs who won the recent by-elections — who were introduced into the Commons in the proper fashion (which doesn’t always happen), and QP got off to a very delayed start. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying that Harjit Sajjan didn’t attend a veterans dinner to apologise to them personally. Justin Trudeau noted that Sajjan unveiled the new defence policy today, and slammed the previous government for not spending enough on the military, to many cries of outrage by the Conservative. Ambrose railed about how the Liberals don’t respect the troops, but Trudeau insisted that his government was going to fix the problems of the previous government. Ambrose concerned trolled about Sajjan’s reputation with the troops, and Trudeau accused them of talking a good game with supporting the troops but not following through. Ambrose tried again, and Trudeau insisted that they were leading the way with restoring the Forces. Ambrose tried another helping of concern trolling, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, concerned about our dropping World Press Freedom index ranking and wanted protection for sources. Trudeau said that they believed in that protection, and Mulcair dropped mention of the VICE journalist fighting the RCMP in court, before barrelling along to his prepared question about the old Bill C-51. Trudeau noted the report released and that they would change the legislation in the coming months. Mulcair then called on Trudeau to personally call Putin about gay men being persecuted in Chechnya, but Trudeau did not commit to doing so, just to better sponsorship for LGBT refugees fleeing persecution. Mulcair accused the government of not doing enough, particularly with emergency visas, and Trudeau spoke about the need for permanent solutions to help refugees, not temporary ones.

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Senate QP: Citizenship and refugees on the docket

While the debate on the report recommending Senator Meredith be expelled was pending, Senate Question Period rolled around, with special guest star Citizenship and Immigration minister Ahmed Hussen in the hot seat. Senator Smith led off on the issue of Bill C-6, which seeks to repeal the provisions that would strip citizenship from those dual-nationals convicted of terrorism. Hussen starting off by remarking that this was an election promise, that they didn’t believe that the same crimes should have different outcomes based largely on where one’s parents came from, and additionally, revoking that citizenship would be tantamount to exporting terrorism, where they can return to hurt Canada abroad. He added that citizenship should not be used as a tool for punishment, which should be role of the justice system. On his supplemental, Smith mentioned two Canadians added to the US terror watch list, and Hussen reiterated that criminals should be dealt with using the justice system, and that it creates unequal treatment which devalues Canadian citizenship.

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QP: Minister Sajjan is very sorry

On a rainy start to the start of the unofficial spring sitting of the House of Commons, all leaders were present for what was going to be a grumpy QP. Rona Ambrose led off first in French, decrying Harjit Sajjan’s apparent misstatement regarding his role in Afghanistan. Justin Trudeau responded that Sajjan took responsibility an apologised for his mistake, and that he still had full confidence in him. Ambrose asked again in English, and got the same response. Ambrose asked again and again, and then a third time, each adding new sins to the pile, but Trudeau’s response was virtually word-for-word the same every single time. Thomas Mulcair was up next, railing about the plans to change the Standing Orders on the basis of their electoral promise, and turning it into a jab about electoral reform. Trudeau was not baited, and praised their plans to improve the country’s democracy. Mulcair asked again in French, accusing the PM of a power grab, and Trudeau stuck to his points, insisting that they want to have a discussion with all MPs. Mulcair changed topics, insisted that Trudeau missed signs that Donald Trump was going to impose a softwood lumber tariff, and did he raise it with him during their meeting in Washington. Trudeau insisted that he brings it up every time they speak, and when Mulcair railed about the impact on the economy, and Trudeau assured him that they were taking the issue seriously.

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Roundup: Seriously, civilian control of the military is a Thing

If three incidents makes a trend, then we may have a serious problem with civil-military relations on our hands in this country. After the allegations that Mark Norman leaked Cabinet confidences to publicly pressure the government to run a procurement his way, and calls by soldiers in uniform for the defence minister to resign, we now have a retiring general who wants less political control over combat missions (on top of greater resources). Because apparently civilian control over the military isn’t a Thing and we should just let them run their own show.

Oh, wait. This is a problem because it’s looking to weaken that civilian control. No one can deny that there were a lot of problems with the way that things were run in Afghanistan because of some rather spectacular bureaucratic bungling, but that doesn’t mean that we should simply turn over operational control to the military. Madness – and coups – lie that way. And if serving members of our military can’t see that, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Meanwhile, as Harjit Sajjan issued yet another apology for characterizing his role in Operation Medusa, we also saw a letter released from General Fraser on Sajjan’s role was at the time. The more that this drags on, and the more we hear military voices chirping on about this, the more I’m seeing another problem with the way in which Sajjan was given the role as minister, while he was still an active member of the Canadian Forces Reserves (and indeed, the point was made upon his appointment that he had to resign because he was still technically subordinate to the Chief of Defence Staff owing to his rank). This is a problem for civilian control of the military, when we put recently retired members into the civilian role of oversight – they’re too close to the culture for one, and as we’re seeing with this particular incident, the soldiers still serving have different expectations of the minister because they’re still seeing him through the lens of being a “good soldier” rather than a politician, which he is now. We’re also seeing this problem in the States with appointments of recently retired military personnel into Trump’s cabinet, where they are blurring lines around civilian control. And We The Media aren’t helping by treating Sajjan as a former soldier instead of a politician in how this whole thing is being handled, which is only amplifying the problems. Neither, frankly, are the Conservatives, who keep trying to insist that the military be left to handle their own procurement (particularly around fighter jets), apparently forgetting about the problems they had with those same files when they were in government when the military’s wish lists were unrealistic, and the fact that just turning it over again undermines civilian control. This is really serious business, and I fear that we’re letting this get out of hand, with not enough voices pushing back against this creeping problem.

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Roundup: Ontario’s “basic income” scheme a bit suspect

The province of Ontario decided that it was going ahead with a three-year pilot project around basic incomes in three municipalities around the province – Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay, each testing different circumstances and local conditions. But there are problems with the way this is all designed, which Kevin Milligan (who has been studying this issue) outlines:

In other words, this isn’t really basic income, which makes it all that much harder to actually evaluate its efficacy, and if it’s not displacing existing welfare or benefit programmes, then it’s not really recouping those costs which makes this hideously expensive. And that’s really been the biggest problem with basic income proposals – the cost. While the idea is that they would displace current benefit programmes, there is less money to be had in cutting the red tape and bureaucracy than one might think, and I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates’ idea of taxing robots to pay for basic income for the workers they displace isn’t really feasible either.

Oh, and then there are the political considerations.

With an election not too far off in this province, we’ve seen a few moves by this government to try and out-left the NDP in places, hoping to cobble together the same sort of winning voter base that they managed to in their last election, and which their federal counterparts similarly managed in 2015. While I get the merits of basic income, I remain dubious of its feasibility, especially when this pilot project appears to be so poorly designed. But then again, I’m not an economist.

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