Roundup: Charles and Camilla in Iqaluit

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrived in Canada, starting their tour in Iqaluit to talk about revitalising the Inuit language – project he has taken great interest in, and last year invited some Inuit delegates to Wales to hear about how they had success in revitalising the Welsh language there. While Charles’ official role in Canada is somewhat ambiguous now that we have a dubious succession law on the books (thanks to the previous government), he is nevertheless the heir to the Crown. The tour moves to Trenton and Prince Edward County in Ontario today, and Ottawa for Canada Day on Saturday.

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Roundup: PBO’s platform peril

Now that the budget implementation bill has passed, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is in the midst of transforming into yet another unaccountable Officer of Parliament that will have a broad mandate and few checks on his actions, given that the government backed down on their attempts to limit the scope of his work. What they didn’t limit was the giving the PBO the mandate to cost election promises by other parties, despite his objections to doing so, and so now his office is being forced to figure out just how they’ll do it. The legislation does make it clear that he’s only to cost individual promises, not their whole campaign, but it’s going to be an enormous amount of work that will be used even more as a cudgel than his work already is, and we can expect an election period being filled with taunts of “See, the PBO says that your plans will cost more than you say and he’s independent,” with the unspoken “Nya, nya!” in there. Oh boy. Anyway, Jennifer Robson has a few more thoughts on the issue.

The bit about a common baseline is possibly important, given that economist Stephen Gordon has been trying to match Liberal election promises to the current budget framework and has found the task to be nigh impossible.

Enforcing common costing baselines may sound like a good idea, but it does make me nervous about campaigns devolving into accounting exercises at the expense of other considerations, including accountability, and that we’ll have repeats of 2008, when we had clear platform commitments shrugged off by reporters going “it’s just so complicated” when a) it wasn’t, and b) it reinforces this “math is hard” narrative that does nobody any favours. But maybe that’s just me.

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Roundup: Rejected amendments on C-4

It looks like we may have another bit of drama between the Commons and the Senate with respect to the amendments on Bill C-4, which is the government’s repeal of two private members’ bills from the previous parliament that sought to limit unionisation. While the portions of the bill related to the repeal of the one bill on financial reporting for unions went through, there were amendments to retain the portions of the former bill on ensuring that union drives are subject to a secret ballot instead of the card-check system. The government has signalled that they plan to reject those amendments, which was not unexpected.

The insistence on secret ballots for unionization was a very fraught issue, and having covered the private members’ bills in the previous parliament, I spoke to a number of labour relations experts who said that not only did this was a problematic change because it put the system out of step with much of the legislation around it, but the process for making those changes – a private members’ bill – upset a lot of the balance in the system and because it had the Conservative government’s support, it shifted the role of the government from promoting settlements and giving parties mediators or arbitrators to one of being openly against the unions. None of that goes away with the Senate’s amendment process. This isn’t by any means to say that I’m trying to shill for the unionization side of things – I’m not. But this is one of those issues where process does matter, and the previous parliament upset the usual process by which these issues are agreed to.

And if the Commons rejects the amendments and sends it back to the Senate? Will they accept the judgment of the Commons? Likely. While the Conservatives in the Senate will likely try to fight this tooth and nail – seeing it as a legacy of their time in government – I’m sure there will be some pressure (and no small amount of admonition from Senator Peter Harder) to bend to the will of the elected members. If the Senate didn’t go to war with the Commons over the assisted dying bill, I have a hard time seeing why they would over this one, particularly as there is a good chance it would not survive a Charter challenge.

ETA: I confused C-4 and C-6 with regards to the call for a free vote. Those sections have been excised.

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Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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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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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: About those revocations…

Everyone has been making a big deal about citizenship revocation lately, particularly post-Maryam Monsef birthplace revelation, but as it turns out, the situation is not as black-and-white as presented, particularly in some media depictions like this one from CBC. So the former chief of staff for the department sent out a tweet-storm of context and correction that is worth reading, and shows why it’s wrong to conflate that issue with the other revocations that are taking place. This is also interesting context to add to the questions that John McCallum faced in Senate QP last week where he stated that he’d look into a moratorium on these revocations that are happening without much in the way of due process or an appeal mechanism, but it does shape the issue in a different fashion, so again, it does give pause as to what the moratorium being demanded is really asking for. It’s something to keep an eye on, but for now, here’s that boatload of context for consideration.

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Roundup: A few answers and a fuzzy line

The RCMP gave a lengthy press conference yesterday on the “domestic terror” incident in Quebec, and laid out several more facts to the case – that they were aware that the person of interest was being radicalized, that they had been in contact with his family and the Imam at that local mosque after concerns were raised that they arrested him back in July and seized his passport after he expressed a desire to head to Turkey in order to join the fighting in Syria, but that they seemed to be making progress and that he appeared to want to turn his life around just a few weeks ago. And then the incident happened, but there wasn’t much that they could have done to prevent it because it’s not illegal to have radical thoughts, or to drive a car. One of the two soldiers that he ran down died of his injuries yesterday, the other’s injuries are minor. The whole incident raises questions about passport seizures – especially as it means that they might be more likely to commit an act of violence here in Canada – and also highlights the fact that the threshold for where an act of violence becomes an act of terrorism is a subjective one. Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said that the death of that soldier will strengthen the resolve of our CF-18 pilots headed to Kuwait. Stephen Saideman offers some perspective sauce on the whole issue. Michael Den Tandt says that Canada can’t pretend to be immune to the threat of terrorism any longer, but it depends how the government handles the next steps that will be the most telling.

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Roundup: Passing knowingly flawed bills

The Senate, it turns out, passed a tough-on-crime private members’ bill that contained a gaping error in it, and they knew it had an error in it and passed it anyway – with observations attached about the errors. Why? Because said private member had become a parliamentary secretary, and sending it back to the House to fix the error would have basically killed it because its sponsor could no longer sponsor it. It seems to me that there should have been a fix for that – generally a unanimous vote in the Commons that someone else take it on, as has happened when an MP retires while their bill is in process – but more to the point, if the government was so enamoured with it, then they should have drawn up a government bill that fixed the errors and put it through the process, which likely would have been expedited since it had already had committee hearings in its previous form. But hey, let’s keep up this nonsense of backbenchers sucking up to the government with these nonsense bills, and let’s keep up this bawling that the Senate shouldn’t overturn flawed bills that passed the Commons because they’re not elected. It’s really helping our legislative process, clearly.

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Roundup: Pamela Wallin’s big day

It’s the big day for Senator Pamela Wallin, as her audit gets released today. CBC’s sources say that the repayment could run over the $100,000 mark, of which she has already repaid $38,000. We’ll see what kinds of reverberations this has, and whether the full Senate will need to be recalled to deal with this.

Stephen Harper added his own voice to the condemnation of Russia’s anti-gay laws, in support of John Baird’s position. While there are concerns this may split the Conservative base, there does seem to be a grudging acceptance that we should speak up if gays and lesbians are being persecuted and murdered in countries like Russia or Uganda.

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