Roundup: A firmer timeline for cannabis

The Senate came to a negotiated decision around the marijuana legalization bill timeline yesterday, and there is a bit of good news, and a bit of bad news if you’re waiting for its passage. On the one hand, the new timeline has the benefit of an end date – that it aims for third reading vote by June 7th, but that also moves a vote on second reading until March 22nd, and from then on, it will go to five different committees instead of just three. It does, however, mean that the government’s timeline of July is now out of the water, because even if it passes in June (because there is the possibility of amendments, but there should be enough time to deal with those), there will still be an eight-to-twelve week lag time between royal assent and when the stores can open their doors given production and distribution timelines, and the likes. So, it likely means no legal weed over the summer, if you’re so inclined.

A couple of additional notes: I keep hearing this concern trolling that keeping the legal age below 25 is terrible because youth shouldn’t smoke it because of brain development and so on. The problem with setting the legal age too high is that it remains the forbidden fruit for those youth, which encourages use, but it also ignores the reams of data that we have on what happens when drinking ages are set too high, especially in states where it’s 21 instead of 18 or 19. What happens if you have young adults who binge drink to the point of alcohol poisoning because there is no way to build a culture of moderation – not to mention, it will continue to be an active driver for the black market if young adults can still get it that way. At least by setting it to the provincial drinking age, you have a better chance of reaching them through education programs (which will hopefully be better than the current “don’t do drugs” scare tactics that governments repeatedly try and fail at) than simple prohibition. In other words, I hope that senators (and in particular Conservative ones) don’t make this a hill to die on.
The other note is that in the lead up to this negotiated timetable, Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” Senator Peter Harder took the CBC to proclaim his concerns with the pace of the bill, and lamenting that it had been in the Senate since November – err, except it was really only there for a couple of weeks before the Christmas break, during which time the Senate was busy dealing with a glut of other bills from the Commons, and that they rose a week before they planned to, and this is only the third week back after the break, during which it has received several second reading speeches. He was utterly disingenuous about how much time it had been in the Senate to date, and I suspect that this is all part of his play to continue casting the partisan gamesmanship (or threats thereof) by the Conservatives in order to push through his reforms to the chamber that would delegitimise structured opposition, which is a very big deal, and one that Senators shouldn’t let him sneak by them by playing up concerns over this particular bill’s progress.

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QP: Trudeau has a ready response

While the Commons was already preoccupied with the Supply Day motion demanding that the prime minister repay the costs associated with his vacation two Christmases ago, you would think that maybe, just maybe, that the opposition would lead off with something else. But no. Andrew Scheer, predictably, led off with the vacation issue and demands for repayment yet again, for the eleventieth day, and Justin Trudeau repeated his well-worn points that he accepted responsibility and would follow the advice of the Commissioner going forward. Scheer tried again, with some added snark, and Trudeau reiterated his response. Scheer then demanded to know what part of the opposition day motion the PM disagreed with, and Trudeau turned to his high road talking point about how the Commissioner ensures that the issues go above partisan talking points and mud-slinging. Scheer called out Trudeau’s attempt to break the fourth wall, and they went another round of the same. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, concern trolling as to why Netflix is exempt from sales tax. Trudeau picked up on Caron’s points and said that he was right — web giants should pay more, but sales tax would simply mean that Canadians pay more. Caron switched to French to ask the same, and Trudeau reiterated that the NDP were simply demanding that taxpayers pay more. Charlie Angus was up next, and tried to spin a conspiracy theory that the Liberals were letting KPMG off the hook because they were apparently getting payoffs of some variety. Trudeau reminded him that they put a billion dollars into the CRA to go after tax evasion. Angus raised the case of Stephen Bronfman, asserting that he somehow “got off” (from some unspecified charges) and then pivoted to wounded veterans, and Trudeau gave a rousing defence of their treatment of veterans and blasting the Conservatives.

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QP: Letting the veteran issue slip by

A frigid Monday in the nation’s capital, and all of the various party leaders were in attendance. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and in French, he demanded that the PM repay his expenses for his Bahamas vacation. Justin Trudeau reminded him that he took responsibility and would ensure going forward would clear future trips and clarify his relationship with the Aga Khan. Scheer tried again, and Trudeau reiterated recommendations from the Commissioner and that he would adhere to them. Scheer switched to English to try and bring the high dudgeon for the very same demand. Trudeau went to the high road, and reminded the viewers at home that the Ethics Commissioner is above partisanship and he was happy to all of her recommendations. Scheer repeated his demand, and got the same response, tut-tutting about mudslinging. Scheer insisted that only a Liberal would consider an “objective finding” by the Commissioner to be mudslinging, but it didn’t change Trudeau’s response. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and in French, he railed about a mining company that got government loans and then avoided taxes. Trudeau, taking to prepared notes for a change, indicated that the loan came from an arm’s-length Crown Corporation, which was not under their control, and if there was tax-shifting, they condemned those actions. Peter Julian repeated it in English, and Trudeau reiterated the tax-shifting portion of his answer more forcefully in English. Julian then railed about web giants not paying Canadian taxes, and Trudeau said they promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. Caron took a stab at the same question in French, noting that these companies control online advertising and media, but Trudeau noted that they recognise that the online world is changing which is why they went to Netflix to get more help for content creators. Continue reading

Roundup: Imagining a competent committee

One of the most interesting pieces I read this weekend was a lament by financial journalist Kevin Carmichael, who imagined a parallel universe where a competent House of Commons finance committee could actually question the governors of the Bank of Canada about monetary policy decisions in the interests of accountability, rather than just juvenile point-scoring. And lament is really a good word for it, because this is the kind of thing that our committees should be doing – but they don’t. It’s all about who can try and get their party positions validated than dealing with the issue at hand, which in this case is the reasoning why the Bank of Canada is setting the rates where they are. As Carmichael points out, the Bank does hold press conferences and reporters can ask questions, and some of those journalists have a clue about what they’re asking, so that helps – but it would be great if our MPs could do the same. (Traditionally, senate committees tend to be where the serious questions get asked, but I’m not sure if the Bank appears before them regularly or not, and I haven’t had enough chance to see if the cohort of new independent senators has taken up the mantle of seriously questions – the kinds of questions that put fear into deputy ministers – just yet). Suffice to say, it’s a piece I encourage people (especially MPs) to read, and look at the kind of committees we could have, if enough MPs took the exercise as seriously as they should be.

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Roundup: Harder’s shrouded call for time allocation

Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” Senator Peter Harder is back at it again, reviving his terrible idea of a Senate business committee, and putting out a piece about how great it would be. Just imagine, he says – ensuring that there are fewer gaps between interventions on bills will mean that Canadians can follow the debate more easily! It will safeguard substantive debate! The unspoken issue here is that it won’t let someone, probably the Official Opposition in the Senate, to delay debates.

In other words, Harder not only wants a committee to time allocate all government bills in the Senate, he wants to delegate the authority to do this time allocation to a particular clique who will do the dirty work for him (because as we’ve seen time and again, he’s loathe to do the actual negotiation of debate timetables with the other caucus groups as it is). This should, of course, be concerning to everyone because the Senate doesn’t debate bills like the House of Commons does, nor should it. The way the rules are currently structured maximise the rights of individual senators to speak to any bill or motion before the Senate, and it gives them an opportunity to carefully draft responses to the matter that were just given before them, rather than, as the Commons does, simply have them draft generic speeches that will then be read into the record (unless you’ve got someone adept enough to speak extemporaneously for their allotted time, which happens not at all in the Commons, and very rarely in the Senate). There is no actual demonstrated need for this – there isn’t any kind of crisis of bills not passing the Senate, and the few bills that are being deliberately delayed are either private members’ bills (which Senate rules don’t allow for time allocation), or it’s because the newer senators haven’t learned the procedural tactics that are letting the Conservative senators take as many adjournments on debate as they can. It’s a temporary problem that Harder is misdiagnosing and is looking to wield a sledgehammer to fix, completely unnecessarily.

As I’ve argued before, any gamesmanship that the Conservatives are playing is leaving the Senate vulnerable to arguments like Harder is making to need these kinds of time allocation measures – and they should be aware that they’re making Harder’s arguments for him. But it’s an unnecessary proposal that Harder is making, and one that not only misunderstands how things work in the Senate, but it will have consequences and it will diminish, rather than enhance, the debate. But we have a rich tradition of tinkering with the rules and making things worse off as a result that Harder is playing right into.

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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: Legislative hostages

Every few months this story comes around again – that the government misses have a senate that acted more like a rubber stamp than the active revising body that they are. And the government – and Trudeau in particular – will say oh no, we believe in an independent senate, and we want them to do their jobs, unless of course that means amending budget bills, in which case they invent reasons why the Senate isn’t supposed to amend them, because they’re money bills (not true – the Senate is only barred from initiating money bills, not from amending them), and so on. And lo, we have yet another example this past weekend, but this time over the transport bill that is currently in the Senate. But because this is an omnibus bill with several parts to it (which isn’t to say that it’s an illegitimate omnibus bill – these are all aspects dealing with transportation issues), and because the government wouldn’t let it be pulled apart, the easier stuff couldn’t get passed first while they dug into the more challenging parts. But, c’est la vie.

What does bother me, however is this particular snideness that comes from some of the commentariat class over these kinds of issues.

The three senators in this case were Senators Carignan, Mercer, and Lankin. Two of the three, Carignan and Lankin, had previously served in elected office. They’re no more or less unknown than the vast majority of MPs, and “unaccountable” is one of those slippery terms in this case because they exist to hold government to account. They’re also just as much parliamentarians as MPs are, for the record, not simple appointees. Gilmore also has this bizarre notion that the business of accountability – which is the whole point of parliament – is somehow “holding hostage” the work of the elected officials. Last I checked, the point of parliament wasn’t to be a clearing house for the agenda of the government of the day, but rather, to keep it in check. That’s what they’re doing, just as much as judges – you know, also unknown, unaccountable appointees – do.

The one partial point I will grant is the “self-righteous” aspect, because some senators absolutely are. But then again, so are a hell of a lot of MPs. The recent changes to the selection process for senators may have amped up some of that self-righteousness for a few of them, but to date, nobody has actually held any legislation hostage, and the government has backed down when they knew they were in the wrong about it. So really, the process is working the way it’s supposed to, and that’s a good thing.

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Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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Roundup: Uncritical about the playwright’s lament

Toronto playwright Michael Healy apparently took to the Twitter Machine to plead with the government to ditch their talking points and talk like human beings. Aaron Wherry in turn wrote this up as wondering why politicians don’t talk like they’re on the West Wing, but didn’t actually look at the reasons why message control has taken hold – never mind that nobody actually talks like they’re in an Aaron Sorkin production (because honestly, the sanctimony alone…) But in all honesty, it would have been a useful exercise to see why some of this has become entrenched.

For one, part of the problem is the format of Question Period in the Commons, where the strict 35-second clock makes reasonable answers all-but impossible in most cases. I’ve had staffers tell me that they have to prepare scripts, not because their ministers don’t know the subject matter, but because they need to keep it within those 35 seconds and that’s the easiest way. I can’t say that I’m necessarily sold on that – or too sympathetic – but I can see why the temptation is there.

Part of the problem is the way in which branding has taken hold of politics to such a degree that there is a perceived need to drill slogans into people’s brains – things like “Strong, Stable Conservative Majority™,” or “The Middle Class and Those Looking to Join It™.” One of my pet peeves is “The Environment and The Economy Go Together™” because I know that the minister who keeps saying that is capable of answering questions in a reasonable manner and could do so if she stopped delivering that line, but that’s the message that she wants to drive home. Even though we get it.

And part of the problem is the way that We The Media treat frankness – we punish them for it. Witness what happened two weeks ago when Carla Qualtrough went on CTV’s Question Period, and Evan Solomon picked the $1 billion figure for a possible Phoenix price tag out of thin air, and when Qualtrough said, frankly, that she didn’t know but she couldn’t rule it out, suddenly CTV ran with the “billion dollar” headline, and absolutely everyone else followed suit. It’s now stuck to the Phoenix issue in most headlines, never mind that it wasn’t what she actually said, but her moment of frankness is now being treated as some confession that we will tar the issue with. We The Media have been repeating the mendacious and disingenuous framing devices around the interminable Morneau Shepell questions uncritically – and in some cases, fuelling them in a complete absence of fact of context *cough*Globe and Mail*cough* and anything that the ministers say becomes a trap.

So why, then, would any minister want to be frank in their answers, if we’re just going to punish them for it? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the self-awareness to process this – that we are part of the problem that drives this issue to turn all government messages into pabulum. We do this to ourselves. Let’s think about that.

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