Roundup: Just a normal backbench function

There are days when I wonder if the cynicism among reporters isn’t the bigger problem facing Ottawa as we get yet another incredulous piece talking about how backbench Liberal MPs are openly voting against their own party, and how incredible is that? One MP went so far as to say that the Prime Minister himself told his caucus that the media was going to have to get used to the fact that MPs would disagree with him from time to time. And lo and behold, it continues to be treated as both a novelty and an aberration that backbenchers will stand up to government. We had commentary on one of the lesser weekend panel shows yesterday that was some pundit or other incredulous that there were MPs disagreeing with the leader, apparently because there weren’t enough goodies like cabinet posts or committee chairs to go around, and I can’t even.

Meanwhile, we have interviews with the government whip about how he’s going to manage all of these free votes on things (which was fairly constructive, to be honest, as he talked about having copies of the bill at hand and lists of people he could direct MPs to talk about with their concerns). It’s helpful, but needs more reminding that hey, it’s actually a backbencher’s job to hold their own government to account as much as it is the opposition’s. Now, if we could just get them to start asking some real questions in QP instead of throwing these suck-up softballs, that would be really great. Oh, and while I’m on the topic of journalists and pundits acting all surprised that MPs are doing their jobs, can we also stop this faux-confusion about how things are working in the Senate with “independents” and “independent Liberals”? Because honestly, if you haven’t gotten the memo that Senate Liberals are not part of the national Liberal caucus, and that they simply chose to continue to call themselves Liberals because the Rules of the Senate say that a caucus needs to have an association with a registered federal political party, then you really need to get with the programme. Stop saying that things are confusing when they’re not. You’re not helping the public – you’re just making things worse.

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Roundup: Review or oversight?

With C-51 now before committee, and the process of hashing out hearing schedules and witness lists begun, the debate continues over its merits. The story about the young Edmonton who went to support ISIS and CSIS didn’t stop her – because they’re not empowered to disrupt – is adding fuel to the fire, while it’s also bringing out a lot of conspiracy theories that are way out there, like ones that state that the terrorism angle is just a smokescreen so that the government can go after environmentalists and First Nations who oppose their resource development projects. (For the record, I have a really hard time seeing that, especially when you start intimating that it’s at the behest of corporations). The question of oversight remains top of mind, particularly as the Liberals are making that the hill they want to die on – or at least fight an election over – to which Philippe Lagassé writes a very interesting piece about the nature of parliamentary oversight committees in comparable Westminster democracies. In particular, these committees and the one that the Liberals have proposed here in Canada is not actually oversight either – it’s a review committee, like SIRC, only broader because it would review all national security agencies as a whole rather than in silos as what little oversight or review mechanisms to do currently (an four years later, talk about better integrating oversight remains just that). More importantly, however, Lagassé notes that opposition parties need to be very careful about how much oversight that they demand parliamentarians have because involving them too much can make them complicit in decisions that they should be holding the government to account for, and by swearing in a group of MPs to secrecy to see the materials, it effectively silences them because they can’t talk about what they know, and it can take such material out of sight and out of mind – as what happened with the Afghan detainee documents. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have more parliamentary review of national security, but we need to be cognisant of its aims and limits.

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Roundup: Attendance under the microscope

As one of those fun little articles to fill the pages over the holidays, the Ottawa Citizen looked at party leaders’ abysmal QP attendance records. What it showed was, predictably, pretty abysmal, with the Prime Minister coming in with the worst attendance record, and Justin Trudeau not far behind. As someone who attends QP regularly, I could have told you as much, but it’s nice to see some recorded figures and percentages, though when you think about it, Mulcair’s increase is really means he’s there one more hour per week. The piece also treats Friday QP as a regular day, which it hasn’t been as long as I’ve been covering it, but perhaps we should pay more attention to it and treat it as more than just a rump where those MPs who aren’t jetting off back to their ridings stay behind to hold the fort. There is one thing in the piece that did bother me, which was the load of nonsense that Peter Julian said about Michael Ignatieff, because it’s completely false. Ignatieff was there for QP on most days – far more than Harper was. The “not showing up for work” figure that the NDP used in the last election was based on voting records, and it was misleading because Ignatieff made a policy not to vote on private members’ business whenever possible in order to free his caucus to vote as they chose rather than to take direction from him. That meant he attended fewer of these votes, but the NDP falsely treated that as an attendance record. For them to continue to spread disinformation about Ignatieff’s attendance is shameful (but not surprising, alas).

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Roundup: Challenging the empty seats

A Vancouver lawyer has decided to launch a constitutional challenge about the fact that the Prime Minister has refused to fill the 16 vacant seats that are currently in the Senate, and it’s about time. In some provinces, half of their allotted seats are vacant, which has a real impact on their representation, all because Harper is both smarting from his string of poor appointments in 2008 when he elevated Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau to the chamber, but also because he’s petulant and is pouting after the Supreme Court gave him and his reform proposals a black eye (and with very good reason). And because of the pace at which justice unfortunately moves in this country, this challenge may not even be heard until after the next election happens, and a new government may be in place that will actually make appointments – imagine that! But either way, it would ne nice to get some kind of jurisprudence on the record, so that if other future prime ministers decide to be cute and not make appointments, there will be some common law in existence to show how it’s a constitutional obligation and not an option.

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Roundup: Buttressing the Fantino problem

You may think that Julian Fantino’s days in cabinet are numbered. Tone deaf to his file and to the particular needs of veterans, for a government that has tried to make the military a point of pride, Fantino has pretty much been a robotic disaster on par with the reprogrammed Robot from the Lost in Space reboot film. But don’t think that will be enough to convince Stephen Harper to decide it’s time to shuffle the cabinet and oust Fantino. No – that would be a sign that he made a mistake, and of weakness, and well, that simply couldn’t be done. Instead, there has been a great deal of shuffling of the deck chairs – moving retired General Walt Natynczyk to head the department as Deputy Minister, and now the PMO’s director of media relations, Stephen Lecce, has been reassigned as Fantino’s chief of staff – at least on an interim basis. In other words, everything is being done to buttress Fantino from the outside, but short of completely reinstalling his duotronic databanks with a new personality matrix, I’m not sure that it will help. I will add that Leona Aglukkaq’s decision to spend Question Period yesterday reading a newspaper while serious questions were being asked about the food crisis in her own riding were being asked was also not good optics, but as of yet, there are no calls for her resignation, not that it would have any success either, as she is too much of a needed symbol in the cabinet for Harper to let her go for any reason short of leaving briefing binders within reach of the associates of biker gangs.

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Roundup: 50 years, not six

Despite the government’s announcement of $200 million in new funds for veterans mental health over the next six years, digging into the documents shows that only $20 million of that will be spent over the next six years, while the remainder will be doled out over the next 50 or so years – until the last veteran with PTSD no longer requires the services. And cue the howls of outrage. I’m not sure why anyone is too surprised, as over-promising and woefully under-delivering has become this government’s forte – almost as much as re-announcing old money as though it were new funds several times over. This is no different, and the kind of indifference they are showing to the veteran community – despite campaigning on the banner of being great friends of the military – has been noticed, and it’s the subject of the Liberals’ latest series of ads, as they hope to use it as a wedge in the next election. Meanwhile, Julian Fantino has been absent from the whole affair over the past week as he’s been in Italy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Italian Campaign in World War II.

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Roundup: The next SCC justice

Stephen Harper surprised pretty much everyone when he suddenly announced that the next Supreme Court justice will be Suzanne Côté, a Quebec litigator and the first woman to be appointed to the top court directly from private practice. Côté is known for her expertise commercial contracts, banks, bankruptcy, shareholder disputes, real estate law and the Competition Act, and yes, the Quebec Civil Code. What is different this time is that there was no parliamentary process when it comes to vetting the appointment in any way, or in drawing up a short list, after the disaster that was the Nadon appointment. While the government insists that they were concerned about leaks, the opposition parties have consistently insisted that any leaks came from the government side. Carissima Mathen gives some of her thoughts on the appointment.

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Roundup: The “major” Mourani announcement

It was argued that after the beating they took in Monday’s by-elections that the NDP needed some good news, and when the press release went out yesterday morning, they said that Thomas Mulcair would be making a “major announcement.” When it happened, however, it had all leaked – former Bloc MP Maria Mourani would be joining the party. Sort of. In front of a backdrop and with a giant novelty-sized membership card at the Chateau Laurier, rather than one of the other press theatres on the Hill, Mulcair and Mourani announced that she was taking out a membership with the party and would probably seek the nomination for the party in her current riding, but they were going to play it cute and while she would vote in lockstep with the party, she would remain an independent MP for the remainder of the term and not join caucus because of the NDP’s ridiculous policy that any floor-crossings require a by-election, because apparently we elect parties and not MPs in this country (a belief that is apparently shared in their demand for proportional representation). So, a “major announcement.” Andrew Coyne argues in favour of making floor-crossers run in a by-election only if they are crossing the floor to take a cabinet seat.

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Roundup: A few more details about the Iraq mission

The Chief of Defence Staff offered a Friday afternoon briefing to give a few more details on the mission in Iraq, which he openly acknowledges will likely take longer than six months, and could mean that our special forces advising Iraqi troops on the ground could come under fire from ISIS militants, and that the danger of IEDs is always present. It also sounds like the mission could become something akin to an Afghanistan-style combat training one, which, you guessed it, the NDP would oppose because slippery slope, mission creep, etcetera. Jean Chrétien took to the op-ed pages to back Justin Trudeau’s position that our military role would be marginal and that we should spend more resources on a humanitarian mission instead, conveniently forgetting that it never happened under his own watch.

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Roundup: Warnings about changes to the CSIS Act

Stephen Blaney has confirmed that the government will table a bill next week to enhance CSIS’ powers to better combat terrorism, in order to enhance cooperation with our Five Eyes allies, and to enhance the anonymity for CSIS informants. Never mind that the Supreme Court ruled that those sources already have adequate protections, and the fact that the lawyer for Mohamed Harkat warns that the inability to cross-examine this kind of testimony is dangerous. Former Privacy Commissioner Chantal Bernier also warns that rushing into these kinds of changes could have longer-term human rights consequences. But terrorists!

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