Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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Roundup: Leitch the desperate, hollow shell

Apparently we’re still talking about Kellie Leitch and her “anti-Canadian values” screening, because why not? The Canadian Press kicked off the day by putting Leitch’s assertion that it would be akin to “asking some simple questions” to their Baloney Metre™, and lo and behold, the experts they spoke to pretty much laughed it out of the room, earning Leitch’s supposition a rare “full of baloney” rating. It seems that “a few simple questions” just teaches people how to lie to give the “right” answers, and that proper interviews with people trained to know whether people are lying is so prohibitively expensive that it’s never going to happen. So there’s that. Much later in the day, Jason Kenney decided to weigh in from Alberta, and pretty much eviscerated Leitch by saying that this position is a new one for her that she never articulated before in cabinet or caucus, and that she doesn’t understand the nuance around the issue. But then again, we’ve pretty much established that Leitch lacks any real semblance of emotional quotient or self-awareness, so her inability to grasp nuance should not be a surprise to anyone.

Meanwhile, Peter Loewen reminds us that we’re not as perfectly tolerant as we like to believe, and he has the data to prove it, which is why Leitch’s message will find a home in places. Scott Reid looks over the record of Leitch’s campaign manager, who helped Rob Ford get elected, and notes that by this point, Leitch is less of a candidate than a strategy in human form (which is kind of what Jason Kenney is hinting at when noting that this position is all new for Leitch). Paul Wells notes the low ceiling for the kind of rhetoric that Leitch is now taking on, and while he sees the strategic value in such a position, he also offers some ideas for better choices than Leitch. Tabatha Southey offers her particular acid take on the Leitch situation, and her insistence on digging so much that she is in danger of becoming a mole person. And of course, there’s the At Issue panel looking at Leitch as well.

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Roundup: Rebutting the reformers’ complaints

If it were possible for someone to write a column that was basically one long subtweet, then I’m pretty sure that it’s what Andrew Coyne did with his column on electoral reform, with me as his unspoken target – particularly as he parroted several of my arguments (that no one else seems to be making) without actually getting their substance correct. So here we go.

When proportional representation advocates complain that the allocation of seats among the parties in the legislature does not resemble their relative shares of the votes cast — with the especially unhappy effect of allowing a minority of the voters to rule over the majority — first past the post’s defenders reply: why should it? Members were elected in 338 separate riding elections, not in a single nationwide vote.

Yes, and that’s pointed out for a number of reasons – that the vote share figure that reformers cite as evidence is not actually real (hence its use as evidence is meaningless), and the fact that each MP is elected to a single seat in a separate election has a particular meaning that gives them individual agency rather than making them a thrall of a particular party. This is an important consideration in the electoral system because it gives a clear line for how MPs are empowered, which is what we keep insisting we want. It also demonstrates that if the complaint is that MPs aren’t empowered, it’s because it’s their own choice or ignorance – not the electoral system that is at fault.

When reformers point out the imbalance this creates between voters — in a given election it typically takes many more votes to elect a member from one party than another — first-past-the-posters look positively mystified: everyone gets one ballot. And when the former observe that under first past the post the votes cast for anyone but the leading candidate in a riding are “wasted,” in the sense that they do not contribute to electing anyone, the latter lose all patience. How could any of the votes have been wasted, they ask, if all were counted? The candidate who was elected may not have been everyone’s choice, but he still represents everyone.

Here Coyne adopts the same specious math that the Broadbent Institute was pushing over Twitter yesterday, which ignores how ridings actually work, and that elections are 338 separate events, and mashes the figures together and divides by 338, pretending that it’s a number with meaning when it’s not – just like the popular vote. It’s pretty much like bringing a unicorn to a logic exam. As well, he doesn’t make a compelling argument about why votes are “wasted” because it ignores the broader political ecosystem. It has little to do with the fact that the MP who won the seat represents everyone, but that the vote itself is but one small piece of political engagement. Casting a vote is not the end-all-be-all of political engagement. Rather, the system is built for people to be joining parties and engaging at a grassroots level to develop policy and for riding associations to act as interlocutors between the local community and the caucus, even when they don’t have a local MP in that party. As well, the percentage by which the MP won the seat is a figure that matters. If it’s by a slim margin, then those votes against are certainly not “wasted” – they have a meaning in the message that it sends to the MP about where his or her support lies. That matters.

To reformers’ complaints about how the system works, in other words, the answer commonly offered is: that’s how the system works. It is as if that were not just the system we have now, but the only system there is. And of course if you assume that then yes, reformers’ objections become literally incomprehensible. They might as well object to the weather. If only one member can be elected per riding, then obviously it’s silly to talk about wasted votes, or to complain that voters who supported another candidate are not represented. That’s life. Suck it up. The resulting parliament was not proportional? That’s not how our system works.

No, that’s not why one has to point out that it’s how the system works – one needs to point that out because you need to understand how the system works before you go about changing it, which usually means breaking things and making them worse. It has been proven that every time we tinker with our system, we make it worse, which leads us to want to tinker with it more, breaking it even further. Why? Because people don’t understand how the system works, so they assume that it’s broken, particularly if they get emotional that it doesn’t do what they think it should. This is the whole premise of my book – that we need to stop and understand how and why things work the way they do before we go about messing with the system some more because history has shown repeatedly that tinkering makes it worse. Ignorance is literally killing our democracy, and no matter how well intentioned its reformers tend to be, they almost always make it worse.

At any rate, it’s worth debating. Some might argue that single-member ridings give constituents a clearer sense of who to take their problems to, and who to hold to account. Others might reply that, with several members competing to represent them, constituents might get better service: if one didn’t answer your letter, another might.

From here, Coyne goes off about how maybe multi-member ridings would be better, possibly sprinkled in with single-member ones where they would be too large (hello, all of rural and remote Canada), which immediately brings up questions about how that could possibly be considered a more fair system. And while he touches ever so briefly on accountability, he gets the premise wrong – an MP’s job is not to “service” one’s constituents. It’s about holding the government to account. This, however, is lost on the reformers, whose fetishisation with fantastical notions about “representation” overshadow all other aspects of how the system works in its broader ecosystem. Yes, representation is a part of it, but it is not the totality, and yet that is what all of their reforms are geared toward with no regard for the bigger whole.

So no, it’s not about whether other systems are possible – it’s about not making things worse because you don’t understand how things work now. That’s a very different thing entirely.

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Roundup: An affidavit in error?

Another interesting twist has emerged in the saga of the satellite offices, and the quixotic quest to have the Board of Internal Economy decision challenged in Federal Court. While the NDP crowed that the court accepting their “expert opinion” affidavit, it seems that the legal opinion given to the Board is that this is a Very Bad Thing that needs to be challenged, because allegedly this sets up some kind of terrible precedent. As well, because the acceptance of the affidavit was by a court official and not a judge – meaning probably a prothonotary – this is also somehow significant and material to the challenge. I’m certainly not an expert in civil procedure, and welcome the comments of those who are, but my own particular reading of this is that this is apparently something that should have been laughed out of court right off the start, rather than allowing a judge to actually get the affidavit, read it through, and then telling the NDP to go and drop on their collective heads in a scathing judgment because there is such a thing as parliamentary privilege and it’s an important concept that parliamentarians govern their own affairs. Which of course may explain why the NDP were so giddy as to alert the media that their affidavit was not laughed out of the room in the first place, even though I will remind you that having an affidavit accepted is a far cry from actual victory. Mind you, I do think that this is an issue of parliamentary privilege (for which I explained the reasons here), so perhaps the Commons’ legal advice is worth noting that it means that the affidavit should have been refused after all. But like I said, I’m not an expert in civil procedure, so I await responses from those in the know.

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Roundup: Jumping the satellite offices gun

The NDP are signalling that they have received a hopeful sign in their attempt to take their battle over their satellite offices to the Federal Court, because an affidavit from a university professor that argues in favour of their position was accepted as evidence by the court. If I may be so bold, championing this as a hopeful sign is jumping the gun. Sure, they haven’t had their case summarily dismissed just yet, but that’s hardly a good sign. It could be that the judge wants to hear more arguments before writing his or her reasons as to why this case should never be brought before the courts because of parliamentary privilege, and while there is some academic opinion out there that this doesn’t qualify, I have a hard time seeing why not. It is a fundamental tenet of our democratic system that parliament be self-governing, which means that it does not submit itself to an external body for oversight, and that the courts do not interfere with Parliament and its operations, just as Parliament does not interfere with the courts as they do their job. The mechanism by which the House of Commons governs its affairs is the Board of Internal Economy. They may choose at some future point to come up with a new internal mechanism, but for the time being, that’s it. Normally it operates by consensus, but in this case, the NDP feel that they are being treated unfairly because the other parties at the table insisted that they broke the rules, and to justify their refusal to play by those rules, the NDP have cried “partisan” and “kangaroo court” rather than admit that they were in the wrong when they used parliamentary resources to open up those satellite offices (the very nature of which are dubious to begin with, because they are an extension of the centralization of power and communications within the leader’s office, which is problematic for the rights of individual MPs). By turning to the courts, the NDP are repudiating the supremacy of parliament in determining its own affairs, and that’s a problem. But then again, they are consistent in this repudiation, from demanding that the Board of Internal Economy be dismantled and replaced by a new bureaucracy to oversee MPs activities and expenses, and that senators be placed under some other external authority (in advance of abolition, of course). The problem with trying to replace parliamentary self-governance with a technocratic bureaucracy is that it undermines the fundamental nature of our democratic system. If we can’t expect the people we elect to be able to manage their own affairs, then why are we bothering to elect them in the first place? We might as well just hand power back to the Queen, tell her that the past 170-odd years of Responsible Government didn’t really work out, but thank you very much, and be done with it. Asking the courts to interfere with Parliament’s self-governing ability is a similar admission, rather than taking responsibility for their actions. It’s petulant and does long-term damage to our very democratic system. I quite look forward to a sound denunciation of their position by the Federal Court.

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Roundup: Whose vanity project was bigger?

Day after day in Question Period, we are being subjected to this constant narrative by the Conservative questions that the government – and more specifically Justin Trudeau – is just one big vanity project. Apparently there isn’t a day that goes by that Trudeau or one of his ministers isn’t trying to burnish their own profile, apparently, and the facts aren’t going to dissuade them from this narrative. The State Dinner in Washington? Apparently the president inviting Trudeau’s mother and in-laws was vanity. Trudeau stopping by that boxing gym in New York while already there on business, and seeing disadvantaged youth there? Vanity. Chrystia Freeland’s appearance on Bill Maher’s show while in LA to talk trade with local officials? Vanity. And now it’s the Destination Canada video that Trudeau appears in (never mind that it’s not about him)? Vanity. You can see where this is going. And the new word that Candice Bergen has been dropping to complete this narrative? That all of this supposed self-promotion proves that Trudeau is like a Kardashian. Oh, it’s not an insult, she suggests disingenuously, because the Kardashians work hard at promoting their brand, so obviously that’s what Trudeau is trying to do. So the obvious question to the Conservatives is that if Trudeau is simply busy with all manner of vanity projects, then what the hell was Stephen Harper’s web show 24/Seven? How is that not his own personal reality show à la Keeping Up With the Kardashians? While Trudeau has a personal photographer (Harper had at least two), he isn’t filming his exploits to promote himself under the guise of “a day in the life of a prime minister” or using taxpayer dollars to do it. But the Conservatives haven’t gotten past this notion that because Trudeau is photogenic and charismatic – something that Stephen Harper was not – it must mean that he’s not a Very Serious Person™. The problem is that the electorate didn’t buy that narrative during the election, and Trudeau has proven that he’s got the chops to do the heavy lifting for the job, he’s in the House of Commons more than Stephen Harper ever was when he was PM, he’s taking questions from the media, he’s made himself available, he’s answering questions, and I daresay he’s been more focused on the Canadian brand than his own personal one, but hey – it’s all self-promotion and “vanity.” It’s completely tiresome. That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with the way Trudeau is using his popularity within his own party to turn it into a cult of personality, and there is a very big problem brewing as he is looking to reshape his party’s constitution to solidify that. That’s a huge problem. But it’s not something that the Conservatives can go after him in QP, and rather than try and find something of substance that they can hammer him on, we are subjected to this inanity instead.

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Roundup: A surprisingly packed budget

And that was the budget. It was full of interesting things, but you wouldn’t know it based on the fact that absolutely everybody was fixated on the deficit figure, and barely even that it was built on a super cautious, pessimistic framework that basically presented a worst-case scenario in terms of assumptions, meaning that the only place it really could go was up, and yes, if the economy grows enough, then the budget will start to balance itself. The child benefit changes are the big news, and as for reaction, the Conservatives call the budget a “nightmare” while the NDP rail about all of the promises that it didn’t keep (because everything should have happened immediately).

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Roundup: Cullen tries to game the debate, again

Nathan Cullen is at it again with his attempts to try and skew the electoral reform debate in his direction. Not content to try and game a future Commons committee with “proportional” (but actually not even remotely proportional) membership, Cullen insisted yesterday that the government set up a citizen’s assembly to run a parallel kind of consultative process in order to really make sure that they’re hearing from all the right voices, and so on. Of course, what Cullen isn’t saying is that this is but one more dishonest tactic in trying to hijack the process into delivering the system that his party prefers. But how do I know that this is what the outcome would be? Well, a couple of things, the first is of course the bias for reform that these kinds of assemblies are set up with, and in the kinds of “eminent Canadians” that Cullen seeks to lead this assembly. You can just about imagine the names on his shortlist (Ed Broadbent, Craig Scott, etc), but one really doesn’t have to look very far. Political academia is very much biased in favour of reform, as is the majority of punditry in this country. The fix is very much in when it starts. Also, the experience of the citizens assembly in Ontario that recommended MMP in advance of the ill-fated Ontario referendum on a new electoral system is a kind of demonstration as to how these assemblies become convinced as to the magic that these new systems will apparently bring – they are in an environment where the current system is not adequately explained or represented, and they wind up favouring a system which purports to maximise on the supposed benefits, in this case MMP. Fairness! Local representation! Cooperation! Votes counting! Forget the usual caveats about logical fallacies and magical thinking that these proponents engage in, they are essentially being sold a time-share in Mexico, and make no mistake that by the end, they will sign up for it. It also feeds into the narrative that PR-enthusiasts like to dine out on, about how people just don’t understand how great PR/MMP is, but because those in the citizen assembly really got to learn about it, they understood just how awesome and magical it is, so they really get it. Cullen is trying to tap into all of this – convince your assembly that the preferred MMP system is the way to go, you suddenly have moral authority to pursue it in parliament for all it’s worth, particularly if the government is reluctant to put it to a plebiscite. Cullen is more transparent than he thinks he is, which is why this new plan deserves to be treated with scepticism.

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Roundup: The problem with private members’ bills

I’ve written a lot about the problems with private members’ bills, and in my column this week over at Loonie Politics, it came up again given that the lottery for the Order of Precedence was posted. I wrote about it back in the spring when there were a number of problematic ones that the Senate was possibly going to kill (and in some cases did when the clock ran out on them) for good reason – because they were bad bills. While interviewing Liberal Senator George Baker yesterday for a story I was writing, he offered this, which I unfortunately wasn’t able to include in the piece, but every MP should nevertheless read it and take it to heart:

“Here’s a real problem with these private member’s bills: if there’s a fault in the bill, if there’s a word out of place, if there’s an error in the wording or in the intent of a sentence of paragraph – if it’s a private member’s bill, then the Senate is in a quandary because if they amend the bill, then they will in all likelihood be defeating the bill. If you amend a bill in the Senate, if it’s a private member’s bill, it goes back to the Commons and it goes to the bottom of the list for consideration, and then the private member will come to the Senate committee and say you’re going to pass this bill. We had it happen three times in the past two years. They say you’re going to defeat the bill, so the Senate turned around and passed the bill, given the tradition of not defeating something that’s legitimately passed in the House of Commons, and Senate ignored the necessary amendments and they passed bad legislation.”

Baker is absolutely right in that there is a problem – MPs don’t have them drafted very well, and then don’t do their due diligence because these bills are automatically time-allocated by design. That a number of these bills died on the Order Paper in the Senate one hopes might be an object lesson to MPs that they need to do better, but unfortunately, the lesson too many MPs took is that the “unelected and unaccountable Senate” didn’t just rubber-stamp a bill because it passed the Commons. Except, of course, it’s not their job to rubber stamp, and we’ve had an increasing number of bad bills getting through the cracks based on these emotive arguments, and not a few hissy fits along the way *cough*Reform Act*cough*. And now we have bad laws on the books because of it, apparently content to let the courts handle it instead. It’s sad and a little pathetic, to be perfectly honest. We should be demanding out MPs do better, and when they screw up, they need to take their lumps so that they’ll do better next time. Otherwise they won’t learn – or worse, they will take the wrong lesson, and our system will be worse off.

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Roundup: Waiting for details on Tuesday

As things are being finalised, the government has said that they will announce the final details for the Syrian refugee plan on Tuesday – including full costs – leaving some to wonder about the government’s communications strategy throughout the whole thing so far. It’s true that in most cases, the ministers ‘ offices still haven’t been staffed yet and it’s making it difficult for them to effectively handle their media requests. It’s also worth asking if it’s entirely fair to criticize them for waiting until there were actual announcements before they went ahead and announced them, instead of giving a bunch of half-answers that could change because things haven’t been finalized. John McCallum did note yesterday that many of the details that have been leaked to the media are outdated, so as to manage the expectations around them. It does seem a bit odd to be demanding answers that don’t exist yet, or that to keep harping on the self-imposed deadline rather than to acknowledge that there is a process being followed – and one that has been relatively transparent in terms of what we’ve come to expect over the past decade, where you have ministers talking almost daily about aspects of what’s going on, where we can see the heads of CSIS and the RCMP meeting with said cabinet ministers and talking to the media about issues related to the refugees (including giving blanket reassurance that no, the security screening is not an issue despite what concern trolls may say), and where we can see the tenders going out as the military looks to rapidly winterize some of their facilities. All of this is being done in the open. Do we have all of the answers right now? No. But we have constant updates as to process and as of Friday, a date when the answers will be given. That’s not something we would have seen from the previous government, so it’s worth giving credit where credit is due.

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