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: 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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