QP: Proto-PMQs, take two

Question Period was late today, due to Malala Yousafzai’s address to parliament, and was the only item on the Order Paper for the day. Meanwhile, not all leaders bothered to show up either. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting new taxes and the plan to increase user fees in the budget bill. Justin Trudeau insisted that they were proud of their choices and the ways they are helping the middle class. Ambrose spun the question as taxing time-off, and Trudeau responded by praising their decision to offer free passes to national parks this year. Ambrose spun it about camping — as those fees are going up — but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose then asked whether the government planned to pass her bill on sexual assault training for judges, and Trudeau noted his support for survivors, but he also respects Parliament and the work of committees, and he looked forward to those discussions. Ambrose pressed, and Trudeau noted that it was important that they appointed more women to the bench, which they were doing. Alexandre Boulerice led off for the Liberals, railing about the omnibus nature of the budget implementation bill. Trudeau insisted that it was not an abuse of omnibus legislation, all items were included in the budget. Nathan Cullen repeated the question in English, got much the same response, then Cullen railed about the provisions around the PBO. Trudeau noted that it would make him a full Officer of Parliament with greater independence. Boulerice repeated it in French, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: A ham-fisted trap for the Senate

While Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” Senator Peter Harder continues his tour of sympathetic media (the latest being the CBC), crying about how the Conservatives are holding government legislation “hostage” and how he needs to have the rules of the Senate changed, he and his team have been doing everything they can to destroy what collegiality exists with the Senate through ham-fisted procedural moves of their own.

The bill in question is C-4, which is the stated repeal of anti-union bills passed by the Conservatives in the previous parliament, and naturally they would be putting up a fight, tooth-and-nail, to keep their old legislation. Not surprising, but also a doomed fight. The bill was on track to pass the Senate this week, when Harder’s deputy, Senator Bellemare, announced that they would be calling a vote on it before Thursday, claiming that they had the support of all senators to do so, when in fact they didn’t. Reminder: the bill was on track to pass, as the Conservatives had exhausted their abilities to delay it. By pulling this manoeuvre, Bellemare basically sabotaged the working relationship between the caucuses in order to maybe shave a day or two from the bill. Maybe. Rather than letting it go through, she (and by extension Harder) turn it into a fight over procedure and sour feelings. Why? So that they can turn around and whine some more to the media that the political caucuses in the Senate are not working with them and are being obstructionist, therefore “proving” that they need these proposed rule changes that Harder wants. Harder, meanwhile, gets to look like he’s the victim and just trying to be reasonable when he’s the one who hasn’t been negotiating with the other caucuses this whole time.

What gets me is just how obvious he’s being about it. Well, obvious to someone who knows what’s going on in the Senate, but most people don’t, and he’s keen to exploit the fact that the general public – and indeed most journalists – aren’t paying attention, and he can use that to his advantage. None of their actions make sense if they actually wanted a working relationship with other senators and to try and get those bills they’re suddenly so concerned with (despite the fact that they have done nothing so far to try and move them along), which makes it all the plainer to see that this latest effort has nothing to do with trying to get bills passed in the Senate, and more to do with changing the rules in order to advantage his position.

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QP: Back to helicopter questions

With the PM back from France, and business in the chamber was already hijacked by procedural shenanigans. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying that the PM had misled the House by saying that he had no choice by to take the private helicopter during his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island, to which Justin Trudeau deflected with his standard response that it was a personal vacation and he was happy to answer questions from the Ethics Commissioner. When Ambrose pressed, Trudeau added that he followed the RCMP’s advice regarding travel, but added nothing more, even on a third question, demanding clarification on the RCMP addition to the answer. Ambrose moved onto the question of Syria, demanding that sanctions be restored to Russia in a first step to remove Bashar Assad. Trudeau insisted that they were working broadly with the international community. When Ambrose pressed, Trudeau reminded her that the foreign minister was meeting with G7 counterparts on this very issue. Nathan Cullen and Karine Trudel returned to the helicopter issue, and Trudeau reiterated his same answer, in both official languages. Trudel then turned to the issue of court delays, and Trudeau responded with the same talking points that the justice minister gave yesterday, about working with a new process. Alistair MacGregor then demanded immediate marijuana decriminalization, and Trudeau reminded him that decriminalization does nothing to prevent it from getting into the hands of kids, or keeping profits out of the hands of the black market.

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QP: Justice delay bafflegab

With the PM still in France, most of the other leaders didn’t bother showing up either today, which places more doubt in their howling insistence that the QP is so important that the PM should be there daily. But I digress… Denis Lebel led off, asking about an accused murderer released based on the Jordan decision fallout. Jody Wilson-Raybould insisted that they had taken steps to ensure that there was a transparent, merit-based process, and more judges would be appointed soon. Lebel moved onto softwood lumber and the lack of progress — never mind that there is no trade representative appointed in the States — and François-Philippe Champagne insisted that they were working the provinces and working to engage the Americans. Lebel pivoted to the question of Syria and doing something about Assad, and Champagne said that Assad must be held accountable for his war crimes and Canada was committed to humanitarian assistance, refugee resettlement, and ensuring a peaceful Syria. Candice Bergen picked it up in English, accused the government of shifting positions, and wondered how hey planned to institute regime change. Champagne repeated his response in English, never quite answering the regime change question. Bergen then moved onto the Standing Orders, demanding any changes be made by consensus. Chagger gave a bland response about the necessity to have a serious conversation. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and wondered how many court cases had been thrown out because of delays. Wilson-Raybould reiterated her plan to appoint new judges, but didn’t answer the question. Mulcair asked why the delays in French, and Wilson-Raybould said that she was meeting with provinces to discuss the issues of delays in order to find a coordinated approach to tackling them. Mulcair moved onto problems with the military justice system, and Navdeep Bains responded that they were planning to work on ensuring reforms to that system. Mulcair sniped that Bains answered, then moved onto veterans’ pensions, and Ralph Goodale asserted that they would have an announcement later this year.

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QP: Just a discussion paper

As a lame anti-M-103 protest was taking place on the steps of the Centre Block, and procedural warfare happening in committee, MPs filed into the Commons for the grand inquest of the nation, pre-budget edition. Rona Ambrose led off, lamenting that the PM was looking to engage in a once-a-week only QP. Trudeau insisted that he was happy to be here, and took a dig at the previous government by saying his front bench was strong and he was demonstrating government by cabinet. Ambrose pressed, laying into Trudeau’s admiration for Chinese dictatorship and his fascination with Fidel Castro, but Trudeau noted that it was just a discussion paper that included a U.K.-style PMQ idea. On a third go-around, Trudeau shifted his response to the great things his government was doing for the middle class. Ambrose moved onto the size of the deficit, and Trudeau was able to retreat to his well-worn points about their middle-class tax cut. Ambrose lamented the possibility of cancelled tax breaks, and Trudeau responded with praise for his tax cuts and the Canada Child Benefit. Thomas Mulcair was up next, demanding lower taxes for small businesses, and Trudeau gave his usual points about helping the middle class. Mulcair railed about privatization, and Trudeau noted that he campaigned on investing in infrastructure while Mulcair committed only to balancing the books. Mulcair demanded that the loophole for stock option taxes be loophole, and Trudeau retreated behind his points about lowering taxes for the middle class. For his final question, Mulcair asked why charges were abandoned in a gangsterism trial, but Trudeau only offered generalities about confidence in the justice system.

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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: Worst instincts for second-choice votes

As the Trumpocalypse serves up another “totally not just Muslims” travel ban south of the border, immigration references in the Conservative leadership race are certainly starting to pick up steam. Maxime Bernier started dropping not-so-coded references to “radical proponents of multiculturalism” who want to “forcibly change” the cultural character of the country (no, seriously), while Kellie Leitch offers up some of the questions her “values test” would include. Because you know, it’s totally not like people aren’t going to lie about the obvious answers or anything. Meanwhile, Deepak Obhrai says that statements like Leitch’s is creating an environment that could get immigrants killed, in case you worried that things aren’t getting dramatic. Oh, and to top it off, Andrew Scheer has a “survey” about terrorism that he wants people to weigh in on, and it’s about as well thought-out as you can expect.

https://twitter.com/maximebernier/status/838578590954446848

While John Ibbitson writes about how the Conservative leadership candidates’ anti-immigrant rhetoric is a path to oblivion for the party, I would also add this Twitter thread from Emmett Macfarlane, which offers up a reminder about how our immigration system in this country actually works, because facts should matter in these kinds of debates.

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Roundup: Not a council of elders

As his retirement date fast approaches, outgoing Liberal Senator James Cowan is once again warning against Peter Harder’s plans to disband partisan caucuses in the Senate, fearing that trying to make it “council of elders” or advisory body will make it less effective as a body. He’s right, of course, but I would refine that a little more in saying that it would make the Senate less effective in holding the government to account, which is one of its key features, and in fact, one of the features that defines a Westminster-style parliament.

There are other ways in which effectiveness might be blunted in that any kinds of legislation, inquiries or studies that Senators might otherwise champion could be more easily diffused and go nowhere given that there would be little in the way or organizational capacity to have like-minded senators help move it forward. Having 101 loose fish is a poor way to run an effective body, and yet that is what some people think that an “independent” chamber means, rather than focusing on one that is less partisan and that far more easily works across party lines to get the work done that is being asked of them. And it totally wouldn’t have to do with a Government Leader – err, “government representative” would would rather have a body of independent senators that he can manipulate and manoeuvre as he and his political masters wish. Perish the thought.

This having all been said, we’ll miss Senator Cowan greatly. He’s been a credit to the institution and provided a great deal of leadership during a difficult few years for his caucus.

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Roundup: No, Monsef was not demoted

So, cabinet shuffle, and while everyone keeps saying this is somehow Trump-focused, I’m not sure what labour, status of women, or democratic institutions has to do with Trump. There will be all manner of hot takes, and yes, you’ll get mine too. It was striking in that just barely over a year into the new government, two of the most senior hands have not only been bounced from cabinet, but from parliament as a whole – John McCallum headed to China as our new ambassador, and Stéphane Dion to parts unknown in what is likely to be a diplomatic posting of some variety, but what we’re not quite sure just yet. In a government that has very few experienced hands, this is something that does give me some pause. MaryAnn Mihychuk’s ouster, however, was not a great surprise given the stuff that came out when she had a number of duties taken away from her portfolio, particularly around her attitude and her ambition to be a regional political minister in a cabinet that has largely eschewed them. Chrystia Freeland to foreign affairs is not a surprise (making her the first Liberal woman foreign affairs minister in the country’s history – previous ones had been Conservatives), Patty Hajdu to labour seems a natural next step for the job she has been doing, and François-Philippe Champagne to trade is ambitious but he proved himself as Bill Morneau’s parliamentary secretary over the past year. Another first in Cabinet is Ahmed Hussen to immigration, who is Somali-born (and while some have said he’s the first Black cabinet minister, that would actually be Lincoln Alexander).

And then there’s Maryam Monsef. She’s off to Status of Women, which people keep insisting is a demotion, but I have a hard time accepting that notion. She carried a file that is the equivalent of a flaming bag of excrement and smiled all the way through. Sure, she’s no longer the person to finish trying to smother that file as elegantly as possible (so good luck with that, Karina Gould), but a demotion would have been getting the Mihychuk treatment. Status of Women is not a demotion. People went on TV scratching their heads about what challenges are in that department, apparently having not paid attention to the big files in that department, including sorting pay equity, ensuring that all government departments actually implement gender-based analysis, and that tiny little file about the plan to combat gender-based violence. You know, no challenges at all. Plus, she’s gone from a make-work portfolio that didn’t have an actual department – just a handful of PCO staffers to support her – to an actual line-department. It’s not a demotion. And did I mention good luck to Gould because yeah, now she gets to try to stick handle trying to find a way to kill the electoral reform election promise as gracefully as possible (despite Kady O’Malley’s belief that the PM thinks that all hope is not yet lost). Because seriously – this is a file that needs to be put out of its misery before it can cause actual damage to our democratic system.

Meanwhile, if you want hot takes on the cabinet shuffle, there are plenty here from Michael Den Tandt on Freeland, Andrew Potter on Dion, Susan Delacourt susses out the dynamics, while Paul Wells adds both some global perspective and insight into what it says about Trudeau.

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Roundup: Chagger on fundraising

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger talked to the Huffington Post, and the headline had all of my media colleagues grasping for their pearls as she declared that the House of Commons was not the place to discuss Liberal fundraisers. And if I’m going to go full pedant on this, she’s right – to an extent. On its face, fundraising is party business and really nothing to do with the administrative responsibility of the government. Why this current round of eye-rolling nonsense around so-called “cash for access” fundraising (which isn’t actually cash for access in the sense that we got used to talking about with Ontario) is because the opposition is trying to link those fundraisers with conflicts of interest from the government, all based on insinuation with no actual proof of quid pro quo. But because there is this tenuous connection, the questions are being allowed, and they get to make all manner of accusations that would otherwise be considered libellous before the cameras under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Indeed, when Ambrose accused the government of acting illegally with those fundraisers, Chagger invited her to step outside of the Chamber to repeat those accusations. Ambrose wouldn’t, for the record.

Where this might resonate are with memories of the previous parliament, with endless questions about the ClusterDuff affair, and the operations of the Senate, and those various and sundry questions that came up time and again, and which were rarely actually about things that were the administrative responsibility of the government. And every now and again, Speaker Andrew Scheer would say so. But contrary to the opinions of some, this wasn’t something that Scheer made up out of thin air.

In fact, Scheer was too lenient for many of these questions, and there are sometimes that I think that Regan is even more so. Most of the NDP questions asked during the height of the ClusterDuff affair were blatantly out of order, asked for the sake of grandstanding. That the questions with the current fundraising contretemps have made this tenuous link to government operations and decisions is the only thing that makes them marginally relevant to QP. That said, the hope that this will somehow tarnish the government or grind down their ethical sheen generally depends on there being actual rules broken or actual impropriety, which there hasn’t been. Meanwhile, a bunch of issues that the opposition should be holding the government to account for are languishing because they need to put up six MPs a day on this. But hey, at least they’re providing clips to the media as opposed to doing their jobs, right?

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