Roundup: Making a martyr of herself

If there’s one thing that we’re talking about right now that’s not the interminable Standing Orders debate, it’s Senator Lynn Beyak, of the “well intentioned residential schools” remarks, which came shortly after her incomprehensible remarks about trans people while saying that good gays don’t like to cause waves. And after being removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee, she put out a press release that didn’t really help her cause.

Of course, the more we talk about Beyak in the media and demand that Something Must Be Done about her, the more it’s going to embolden her and her supporters. The fact that she’s starting to martyr herself on the cause of “opposing political correctness” is gaining her fans, including Maxime Bernier, whom she is supporting in the leadership. Bernier says he doesn’t agree with her statement about residential schools, but he’s all aboard her “political correctness” martyrdom. Oh, and it’s causing some of the other Conservative senators to close ranks around her, because that’s what starts to happen when someone on their team is being harassed (and before you say anything, my reading of Senator Ogilvie’s “parasites” comment was more dark humour in the face of this situation than anything, and reporters taking to the Twitter Machine to tattle and whinge makes We The Media look all the worse).

But seriously, Beyak is not an important figure. She’s marginal at best within her own party, and her comments have marginalized her position further. But the more that people continue to howl about her, or post e-petitions demanding that the government remove her (which is unconstitutional, by the way), the more she turns herself into a martyr on this faux-free speech platform that is attracting all manner of right-wing trolls, the more she will feel completely shameless about her words. We’ve shone the spotlight, but sometimes we also need to know when to let it go and let obscurity reclaim her.

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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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Roundup: The vacuous pleas to change the Standing Orders

As the procedural warfare over the government’s proposed changes to the Standing Orders drags on, my patience for the government’s digging in their heels and insisting on “modernizing” things are increasingly absurd. To wit, Liberal MP Scott Simms – who is behind the motion to fast track this study, which touched off this warfare in the first place – tried to defend his positon last night, and I just want to bang my head into a wall for a while over the vacuousness of his justifications.

You say that now, but Trudeau has long promised that he wants to be out glad-handing among Canadians instead of being in the Ottawa bubble, so you’ll excuse me if I treat this with suspicion. Meanwhile, there’s nothing stopping him from answering all of the questions one day a week if he wants without needing to change the Standing Orders to do it.

If there is one bit of discourse that I would ban from Canadian politics, it’s the insistence that we can always come up with some new Made in Canada Solution™ to any problem that vexes us. It’s a bullshit sentiment, especially because in this case, the system is already made in Canada and fits the unique circumstances of our parliament as it differs from Westminster. Trying to import other Westminster-isms and mapping them onto our parliament and calling it “Made in Canada” is a fool’s game at best, because our political cultures are quite different. Sure, PMQs sounds like a good idea, but they don’t have desks, don’t use scripts, have a more generous timer, and they have a debating culture that can use wit and self-deprecating humour rather than constant unctuous sanctimony and robotic reliance on scripted talking points like we get here. You can’t just map PMQs here without recognizing the cultural changes. That likely applies to their scheduling motions, while the problem in Canada is more that we have House Leaders of dubious competence as opposed to unworkable rules.

This is specious. If government wants to get their bills passed, they need to convince the Commons. That’s how it works. Meanwhile, the fact that they didn’t get much passed without time allocation (which is not closure, and I want to smack people who confuse the two) is again due to inept House Leadership, not the rules.

Meanwhile, as the Conservatives froth at the mouth at the idea of a once-a-week PMQs, they not only forget that it was all Harper could bother to show up for toward the end of his mandate, and the fact that they voted for Michael Chong’s proposals around exploring this very idea. Oops.

But you know, they have some more outrage to perform.

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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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Roundup: Estimates still a mess

The Main Estimates were released yesterday in advance of the budget, and if you don’t know why this is a bad thing that keeps happening, then you need a better understanding of why this is such a big deal in our parliamentary system. The Estimates are the way in which parliament authorizes the government to spend money, and they should be there for MPs to scrutinize before the money goes out the door. The problem is that we’ve divorced the estimates from the budget cycle, which means that they are now documents that reflect the status quo of the previous year rather than any new measures, and we have to wait for the Supplementary Estimates to be tabled later in the year. With the Main Estimates reduced to a formality, it’s reduced any study of the Supplementary Estimates to a kind of shrug and quick vote to pass, leaving the Senate to do any actual scrutiny, which is a problem. Why? It’s the job of MPs to hold government to account by controlling the public purse – hence the Estimates – and if they can’t do that, they can’t do their jobs. To make this worse, successive governments have allowed the accounting of the Estimates to become virtually unreadable, and when the Public Accounts are released a year later – which shows how that money was spent – they’re reported in a different accounting system, so you can’t really track if money was properly spent or not. It’s an abomination to how parliament is supposed to work (and yes, this is one of those things I talk about in The Unbroken Machine).

To their credit, the Liberals have vowed to fix this, and Scott Brison seems to be at least showing a bit of contrition and frustration that fixing this is taking so long. Part of this is bureaucratic, with departments not speeding up their processes. Part of this is political, where the Commons hasn’t amended the Standing Orders to allow the Estimates to be tabled by May 1st instead of March 1st so that it can follow the budget. But seriously – this is actually the most important job of MPs, and they have shown a complete disregard for this for years now. Their most fundamental duty is to control the public purse and the Estimates are the heart of that process, and they can’t be arsed to take them seriously. Watching them speed through Estimates votes without proper scrutiny happens more often than not, and we saw last year a case where they voted through a flawed version of the bill that the Senate caught and had to send back. It’s a disgrace, and while I applaud Brison for trying to make changes, the fact that the rest of the Commons can’t get on board is utterly shameful.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has a good look at the country’s fiscal picture in the lead up to the budget, while Paul Wells gets more hints about the budget, which looks to be a lot more wait-and-see given the unfolding Trumpocalypse south of the border.

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Roundup: Tough on the mentally ill

Yesterday, news came out that Vincent Li (now known as Will Baker) was given an absolute discharge; he of course was the man who beheaded someone on a Greyhound bus in 2008 while in the midst of a psychotic episode due to undiagnosed schizophrenia. He was later deemed not criminally responsible because, as stated, he was not in his right mind when the incident happened, and has since received treatment and is unlikely to reoffend. And predictably, social media lit up with outrage, particularly from the Conservatives who declared this an absolute travesty and an insult to the family of Li’s victim, Tim McLean, and how this “proved” that our justice system cared more about the rights of criminals than it did the victims. Rona Ambrose brought this up in QP a few days ago, when Li’s release was pending, and not once did she mention the fact that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was found not criminally responsible. (In his response, Justin Trudeau didn’t either, for the record).

But here’s the really galling part. Just days ago, Ambrose and many of these very same Conservatives were all over social media for #BellLetsTalk Day, talking about how important it is to take away the stigma of mental illness. And now here’s Li, who is as much a victim in this as McLean was because he was mentally ill, and the Conservatives are considering him to be an unrepentant murderer because of his mental illness.

So what is it? Are you serious about having adult conversations about mental illness, even when it’s inconvenient to your political agenda of being “tough on crime” (never mind that the courts established that he wasn’t criminally responsible because he was mentally ill)? Or are you going to insist that people who were mentally ill and have received treatment remain locked up in perpetuity, thus “proving” why people with mental illnesses should be stigmatized and marginalized from society? Because it’s one or the other. You’re all looking like a bunch of hypocrites right now, and like you were lying to the Canadian public when you wanted to #BellLetsTalk about mental illness.

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Roundup: The spectre of a Leitch Party

A rather remarkable exchange happened during Trudeau’s visit to Nunavut when he was pressed about his electoral reform promise. Trudeau responded to his questioner “Do you think Kellie Leitch should have her own party?” and laid out a realistic case where parties like that can hold enough seats to affect the balance of power in a parliament. His questioner was taken aback and “respectfully disagreed,” which isn’t surprising because the narrative we are always given when it comes to proportional representation is that it will give us nice left-wing coalition governments forever, which is certainly not the case, and we need to challenge that particular narrative more often, and to point to what’s happening in Europe right now. And to be honest, I’m glad that Trudeau is being a bit more forceful on this point about the potential rise of extreme parties and that such a system would be bad for Canada. Big tent parties have done a lot for this country, and have moderated a lot of regional tensions within them.

Of course, Trudeau bringing up Leitch in such a manner could have unintended consequences of its own.

In a not unrelated note, Michelle Rempel was at an immigration conference in Montreal, and she noted her frustrations in bashing her head against her own party as much as she was with the Liberals that she is critiquing. And she made some very salient points in here about how we can’t pretend that we’re immune to populist rhetoric in this country, because we have a history of it bubbling up (hello 1993 election) and the sentiments still exist here where you have groups of disenfranchised people looking to blame Others. And this brings us back to why changing our electoral system to give incentives to these elements to form their own parties and try to win seats that they can use to leverage power is a very real and present danger. Add to that, there are concerns from experts in the field that the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the States is bubbling up here and fuelling a rise of racism in this country because it’s being seen as more socially acceptable.

So do we change our system to incentivise these voices to better organise and try to win themselves political leverage? Or do we do we maintain institutions and practices that have been successful in dispersing these elements because they know that there is no pathway to victory by pursuing it? It seems to me that it’s a fairly simple answer.

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Roundup: A painful lesson in committee cooperation

News broke yesterday morning that rogue Liberal backbencher Nate Erskine-Smith had been reassigned from the public safety committee by the party whip, and immediately everyone was all “uh oh, this is totally because he spoke out against his party.” Yes, Erskine-Smith has been making all kinds of waves, talking about his disagreement with the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, advocating for the decriminalisation of all illegal drugs to treat them as a public health as opposed to a criminal law issue, and most recently, prostrating himself before his electorate to decry his government’s decision to abandon electoral reform (and using the curious tactic of using language that both undermines his government’s legitimacy and advocates for a system that undermines the very agency he has as an MP to stand apart from his party, but whatever).

Of course, it also appears that none of those commenters from the peanut gallery actually bothered to read the story about why Erskine-Smith was yanked from the committee, and it had little to do with his outspokenness than the fact that he was overly naïve as a newbie MP if trying to make parliament a nicer place. In this case, he wanted to operate by consensus on the committee and tried to get the other parties onside for amending the bill on establishing a national security committee of parliamentarians. The problem was that in the process, he was manipulated by Tony Clement into deleting some of his government’s own provisions because, you know, consensus and working together! So yeah, painful lesson, and maybe he’ll learn to be a little less trusting the next time. I get that you want parliament to be a nicer place and politics to be done better, but if you’re not careful, your opponents will (metaphorically) shiv you because they have their own goals, and they don’t necessarily want to buy into your platform. And let’s not forget that the competition of ideas is part of what keeps our system vital and accountable.

Of course, the fact that the whip could take this step has the usual suspects up in arms about how too much power is in the hands of the leader (by way of the whip), and the standard calls about reforming committees were trotted out. The Liberal Party’s promises on committee reform – more resources, electing chairs by secret ballot, and ensuring parliamentary secretaries are no longer voting members – were pretty much accomplished, but Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong has his own reform ideas (try to look surprised), but reading them over, I have doubts. In particular, his plan to take away the power to assign MPs to committees and replacing it with a secret ballot process is dubious, in particular because a) I can’t imagine trying to count those ballots, b) it won’t solve the problems of MPs all trying to get onto the “sexier” committees while leaving some of the less exciting ones to be scrounging for members, c) critics – which the leader assigns – are on those committees, so for a party like the NDP, the secret balloting process would be useless, and d) this is a typical Chong suggestion of a solution in search of a problem. MPs like to bitch and moan about being assigned to committees they don’t like, but rarely actually ask for committee assignments, nor do they seem to have an appreciation that sometimes the party has to spread out their talent to places where it’s needed as opposed to where MPs want to go.

I’m also not keen on Chong’s plan to merge five committees to bring down the total number because there’s no actual need. We have 338 MPs and we don’t have a super-sized cabinet with a bloated parliamentary secretary brigade to match it, and in the previous parliament, they already reduced committees from 12 to 10 members apiece. There are enough MPs to go around, and merging the mandates of committees overloads them rather than letting them undertake studies of their own accord, which they should be doing. There’s no real crisis of overloading MPs with work right now (which was not always the case), so this particular suggestion seems gratuitous.

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Roundup: Dealing with disappointment

As the tears and recriminations continue over Justin Trudeau’s decision to scrap his electoral reform pledge, we’re seeing a number of pretty dubious messages emerging from those doing the wailing and gnashing of teeth. For as much as Elizabeth May shed tears about how this was a betrayal of youth voters, Justin Trudeau went before a crowd of university students yesterday and nary a word was spoken from those “betrayed” youths about electoral reform. Oops. I’m also a little disturbed by the point that has been made repeatedly by the likes of May, and Ed Broadbent on national television, that somehow the feminist Trudeau was shoving young women ministers “under the bus” over his broken pledge. One has to point out, however, that there is a bit of a sexist undertone to that bit of concern trolling, implying that neither minister was capable of handling themselves on this file, and it ignores that Maryam Monsef was effectively promoted for her performance, going from a make-work office out of PCO to a line department with a big agenda along with added responsibilities for assisting the minister of heritage, while Karina Gould was handed a pretty big new file to tackle in the democratic institutions portfolio, being the very real concerns about cyber-security in our electoral system. And if you don’t think that’s a problem, look at the fact that the BC Liberals suffered a major data breach over the weekend that compromised the files of countless voters.

And then there’s the cynicism argument. Not only have the youth been betrayed by this move, but this breeds cynicism because the rug has been pulled out from those who were engaged in the process, and we have studies that show that people get disengaged when they have bad experiences. But I’m going to challenge that a bit, because as much as you had a group of people that were engaged by the process, the vast majority who have been vocal about it have been selective in their reading about what went on. People insist there was consensus in the report, but the fact that every party walked back on what it said shows that it was not actually consensus. PR advocates not only stacked the witness lists, but most over-read the mandate of the committee and gave some particularly creative interpretations of just what Trudeau’s electoral promise was, deciding that it meant that their preferred system was the only acceptable outcome – in other words, they have only been hearing what they want to hear. When they don’t get it, they blame others for breeding cynicism. As for the disengagement brought on by disappointment, I’ve read those studies too and the common denominator that I found was that much of that disappointment is brought on by the fact that people don’t know how the system works. They get discouraged because they approach the wrong level of government to deal with a particular problem, or that they are simply impatient to deal with the waiting lists caused by limited resources. I get that unrealistic promises might be disappointing when they don’t happen, but people need to be better educated to know when promises are disappointed so that their expectations can be tempered (though politicians should know better than to make stupid promises in the first place).

Meanwhile, I will point you to a must-read, which is a post by UBC political scientist Christopher Kam, who writes a spectacular takedown of an NDP ten-percenter extolling the virtues of proportional representation. It not only takes it apart piece by piece, but provides a good fact-check on some of the PR talking points that were circulating during the electoral reform committee hearings, including debunking some of the studies that were cited continuously to “prove” the points about how great PR governments are.

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Roundup: For fear of extremists rising

In damage control mode, the Liberals have sent out senior sources to talk about why they pulled the plug on electoral reform, and have brought up the relatively new talking point about concerns for the rise of extremist parties, while cabinet was opposed to a referendum (not surprisingly given the referenda we’ve seen globally lately) and to a PR system in general. I say relatively new talking point because it was raised as part of the MyDemocracy survey, but as Paul Wells stated on Power & Politics last night, for a government that purports to be eloquent, they never made the case. I also suspect there was the added problem that in making it known that he was open to being convinced, Justin Trudeau allowed Nathan Cullen and others to steal the narrative away from him, which is a big reason why the Liberals completely lost the plot on that file.

Colby Cosh goes through the promise and given the choice as to whether Trudeau was being sleazy or stupid in making that promise, Cosh goes on the side of stupid – for which I would agree – and notes that a retreat was the best he could hope for rather than some truly unsavoury outcomes, particularly with regard to a referendum or a more purely proportional system. And here we get back to the rise of extremist parties.

Canada is not immune to this rabid and toxic populism that is going around globally, and we’ve seen examples of it manifesting in this country, from the election of Rob Ford, to some of the identity politics being attempted in previous elections both federally and provincially. Just because it has been relatively contained and not entirely successful doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in the future, particularly with its proponents feeling emboldened by what’s happening south of the border. And while Nathan Cullen insists that the rise of alt-right parties is “a load of crap,” he is blinkered by this notion, primarily coming from the left-wing, that a PR system would incentivise all of these left-wing and progressive parties that would somehow always form nice coalition governments. Right now we’re seeing something very different playing out in Europe, with all of their myriad of PR systems producing growing hard-right parties on the verge of winning power in several countries. Trudeau has every right to be concerned about that in Canada, and we have demonstrated proof that our current system has blunted their growth because they can’t command enough broad-based support to dominate our big-tent brokerage parties. That’s not a bad thing.

https://twitter.com/benjaminokinsey/status/827582598109069312

Oh, PR proponents claim. We’ll just raise thresholds so that these parties can’t get seats! But that’s just as problematic because if the thresholds are too low – say below three percent – you’re likely to cut off the Greens and the Bloc, for which they would cry bloody murder. (Their self-interested insistence that more people would vote for them if they knew they were guaranteed PR seats doesn’t help their case). It’s also another way of saying that you want to game the system to produce party configurations that you like, which again is self-interested, and doesn’t make the case for how it makes the system better.

In related news, Paul Wells looks at Karina Gould’s new mandate of cyber-security for our electoral system now that electoral reform is out of the question, and no, it’s not a trivial matter even if we don’t use any kind of electronic ballots in this country. Both Elections Canada and the various parties all have databases, and the party databases most especially are vulnerable, in part because they aren’t subject to any federal legislation which deals with privacy or information security, and that could prove to be a problem in the future.

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