The day after the Conservative leadership results, the seating plan had changed to give front-row seats to most of the failed candidates, with Rona Ambrose to sit next to Scheer for the next few weeks. As well, the PM was still in Rome, and would not be here to spar with Scheer on his first sitting day in the new job. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and launched into a rant in French about how the previous Trudeau government hurt his generation, and asked a rhetorical question about why the government was hurting Canadians. Bill Morneau first offered congratulations to Scheer for his election, and then reminded him that the economy was on the rebound. Scheer switched to English by reading complaints about people being nickled and dimed, to which Morneau repeated his congratulations in English and the positive economic indicators. When Scheer read questions about hiked taxes, Morneau reminded him that the first thing they did was lower taxes for the middle class. Scheer then changed topics and read a question about one of the surveillance planes in Iraq being withdrawn. Harjit Sajjan noted that Canada increased their contributions, and that rebalancing forces was a constant exercise. Scheer repeated his question in French and got the same answer. Irene Mathyssen was up for the NDP, railing about the Infrastructure Bank as a source of user fees. Amarjeet Sohi assured her the Bank was there to invest in the Infrastructure deficit. Alexandre Boulerice asked again in French, and Sohi reminded him that the Bank would be accountable to Parliament. Boulerice then switched to the question of lifetime pensions for wounded veterans, to which Sajjan insisted that they still planned to implement the pension. Mathyssen asked again in English, and Sajjan repeated that further details would be released later in the year.
The feigned outrage over Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as the new Official Languages Commissioner, combined with the disingenuous concern over the search for a new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, is really starting to annoy me – particularly because of the way in which things are being spun, and the abject hypocrisy of it all. As for Meilleur’s surprise that this has become an Issue amidst a snake nest of partisans looking to stir things up and try and throw as much mud on the PM as they can, I have to say Oh, come on. You were in Queen’s Park. You know that they’ll play politics over this. Because seriously.
To start with, I will take note of Meilleur telling an interviewer that she had initially thought about applying to be a Senator to continue to contribute to public life now that she had resigned from Queen’s Park. While I continue to object to the self-identification process that this government has put into place (because why not try to get every narcissist in the country to hand in a CV?), the fact that she was told by the head of the selection committee that recent politicians were verboten in the “newly independent” Chamber is kind of infuriating. Why? Because the Senate is Parliament’s institutional memory. It’s a Good Thing to have some experienced political players in there, from both federal and provincial sides, so that they can be of use to Parliament as that institutional memory. That Trudeau seems keen to destroy that function of it is a problem.
As for Meilleur meeting with Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, I’m far less sold that this is somehow suspicious partisan work. They are contacts she had from their mutual time at Queen’s Park, and she was looking for ways to contribute, and hey, they’re people who would have some ideas. You realise that trying to make a Thing out of it is childish, right? Is the fact that she was once a provincial Liberal a problem for the job? Perhaps, if she didn’t have the qualifications for it. But by all accounts, she is more than qualified, which makes the partisan gamesmanship all the pettier. And to hear the party that appointed Vic Toews to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench rail on about how terrible this is, I have little patience for their arguments.
Meanwhile, as for the Conservatives’ demands that the process for the new Ethics Commissioner be turned over to a third party, I have a couple of things to say: one is that this is a democracy and not a technocracy, so stop trying to offload political decisions to outsiders; two is that you get to hold the government to account for the choices that are made; and three, demanding a retired judge make the selection, when the criteria specifies that the new Commissioner should be a former judge or head of a tribunal, you’re just creating a new conflict of interest because you’re asking said judge to appoint a former colleague. How is this any better? Seriously, do you people not stop to think for one second about your supposed attempts at being clever? Honest to gods, you people.
With the PM away and Rona Ambrose already gone, the Conservatives surprisingly led with Shannon Stubbs, who railed about the plans to close the Vegreville immigration processing centre, in light of revelations of costs associated. Ralph Goodall took this one, noting the difficulty in filling current vacancies in the centre, and that the new centre in Edmonton would double its capacity. Stubbs angrily insisted that the government had lied about the costs, but Goodale insisted that the issue was capacity. Stubbs accused the government of punishing a small town with a Conservative MP in favour of moving it to a Liberal riding, but Goodale stood firm. Gérard Deltell got up next and railed about the government cutting tax credits, to which Scott Brison reminded him that their tax measures helped those who needed it the most. Deltell tried again, railing about the transit tax credit loss (seriously, it was bad policy no matter which way you slice it), and Brison listed the good economic news since the Liberals took power. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and in French, concerned trolled that Bardish Chagger wasn’t up to picking a new Ethics Commissioner. Chagger reminded him of the open and transparent process in place. Mulcair switched to English and wondered what the Liberals would think if Stephen Harper called on Paul Calandra to choose a new Commissioner, but Chagger repeated her answer. Mulcair then turned to the issue of the Official Languages Commissioner, and wondered in what role Gerald Butts communicated with Madeleine Meilleur before her appointment. Joly noted that candidates were vetted and interviewed after a rigorous process and that she spoke with other parties who agreed that she had credentials. Mulcair tried again in French, and got the same answer.
Because seriously: who wants to move to Vegreville? #QP
— Dale Smith (@journo_dale) May 18, 2017
The Senate adopted a change to their rules this week, which changed the definition of a caucus so that it no longer depends on being affiliated with a party registered with Elections Canada, but can instead be any nine senators who want to affiliate themselves. The immediate upside of this is that it formalizes the break between the Conservative and Liberal duopoly that has dominated the Chamber for much of its history, and will grant actual formal status to the Independent Senators Group that the majority of the crossbench appointments have affiliated themselves with. Breaking the duopoly is good, because some of the past abuses in the Chamber were enabled by it – why come down hard on the rules when you’ll be the one to benefit from them next, when it’s “your turn” after all?
But where things go from here is where things get a bit more fraught. Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader – err, “representative,” is pleased as punch by this development because it creates more independence that moves in line with his vision of a chamber without partisan affiliation, where he can then recruit and co-opt senators to his caucuses at will. The notion that it gives senators the freedom to associate themselves in whatever configuration they choose – and usually people’s first idea is on regional lines – is fraught because it takes apart the Westminster model of government and opposition, which is fundamental to our system of government. The ability to have a coherent opposition is an important one, and if the Senate breaks up into interest groups, that makes coherent opposition more difficult, and generally makes it more difficult to hold a government to account – especially if those interest groups start agitating for their own particular special interests rather than having a big enough tent to encompass a multitude of views and regional dynamics within it, like we do now. If we let the Senate devolve into a collection of interest groups, what does that do about its ability to hold government to account, or to actually push back against bad legislation in a coherent manner when it counts to do so? While there is room to grow in the Chamber to permanently fit three or four different caucus groups, we should beware having too many factions. If some of those factions should choose to remain partisan, that shouldn’t be discouraged either – politics is partisan, and the Senate is a political body. That it is appointed, however, means that in most cases, the partisanship is more muted because they aren’t vying for re-election, which is as it should be. But while there are positive outcomes from this rule change, we should keep an eye on it so as to ensure that it doesn’t become abused, especially by those who would exploit the lack of coherent opposition for their own benefit.
Meanwhile, Paul Wells has a good read on the Senator Stephen Greene ouster, and how the two approaches to dealing with this new independent Senate – charm from Trudeau, discipline from the Conservatives – isn’t really working.
It was a grey day in the Nation’s Capital, and outside of the Centre Block, the lawn was littered with Catholic high school students bussed up to the Hill for the March for Life, with a couple of Conservative leadership candidates in the mix. Rona Ambrose led off, concerned about potential waste and duplication created by the Infrastructure Bank, and cited a KPMG report that the government commissioned (highlighted by a Globe and Mail story, of course). Amarjeet Sohi defended the Bank as delivering funds after a decade of inconsistent investment by the previous government. Ambrose suggested that the Bank was simply giving money to billionaires, but Sohi insisted that they were delivering for communities. Ambrose tried a third time, but Sohi listed possible projects the Bank could fund. Alain Rayes picked up the line of questioning in French, considering it “Sponsorship Scandal 2.0.” Sohi carried on with his points about what it could fund. Rayes railed about redacted documents around consultations conducted about the Bank, but Sohi insisted that the documents given to investors were all online. Matthew Dubé and Rachel Blaney worried about tolls associated with projects funded by the Bank in both official languages (Sohi: Your party has no plan for infrastructure), and then both turned to the KPMG report (Sohi: Here are some Canadian funds who want to invest in infrastructure).
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.
Rona Ambrose just called a camping trip "relaxing" and "fun."
Fact check: Untrue. #QP
— Dale Smith (@journo_dale) April 12, 2017
The Conservatives are loudly objecting to Trudeau's characterisation of their budget bills. #QP
— Dale Smith (@journo_dale) April 12, 2017
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.
Getting word that Senator Harder’s team is calling a vote today and claiming they had agreement from all senators today when they hadn’t.
— Dale Smith (@journo_dale) April 11, 2017
— Dale Smith (@journo_dale) April 11, 2017
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.
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.
It even just looks better to be standing and speaking without reading. It looks like you have an actual question.
— Aaron Wherry (@AaronWherry) April 11, 2017
@procedurepols "Mr. Speaker, it says here on this piece of paper that I am deeply disappointed about something."
— Aaron Wherry (@AaronWherry) April 11, 2017
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.
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.
We want Cabinet government, execpt during QP.
— Philippe Lagassé (@pmlagasse) March 21, 2017
#QP is a bit chippier than usual today.
— Dale Smith (@journo_dale) March 21, 2017