Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: Debating useless rule changes

Yesterday was “debate the House rules” day in the Commons, and lo, there was some talk about eliminating Friday sittings again, which the opposition parties tend to be against, but fear the government will try to ram through anyway. And yes, we all know that Fridays are not like any other day, particularly because MPs need to get back to their ridings, but there are still debate hours that happen, and eliminating them means either making up for them elsewhere, or losing them altogether, after we’ve lost plenty of debate hours in the past number of years, all to be more “family friendly” with spring breaks and so on. Kady O’Malley followed the debate (I would have more if I didn’t have other deadlines to file), and some of the best and worst are below.

Eliminating whip/House leader-provided speaking lists absolutely needs to happen. It removes agency from MPs and is part of what has debased QP into this scripted farce and turned debate on legislation into nothing of the sort. If you take away the lists – and then ban the scripts – it will help to make the debate free-flowing once again rather than just exercises in reading speeches into the void.

Oh, the irony. The bitter, bitter irony.

I am dubious, as we would have people tabling all manner of nonsense to “prove” whatever they were saying in QP, almost all of it irrelevant. (Also, look up the story about the tabled hamburger from the Alberta legislature that they ended up preserving).

No. We do not need to privilege private members’ business any more than we already do. Most of it is out of hand, with useless and costly Criminal Code piecemeal amendments, more national strategies than you can shake a proverbial stick at, and even more bills to declare national days for every issue under the sun. The proliferation of PMBs is already out of hand, we don’t need to make it that much worse.

So…turning the summer break from three months to four? No. But do feel free to sit more days in January regardless.

Not unless we start insisting that supply days start being about actually debating supply once again.

Because Parliament is just a debating chamber for hobbyhorses? Because there isn’t actual work that needs to get done?

Not unless parties start agreeing that second reading debates be severely curtailed, and that debate on government bills can collapse relatively quickly. But seriously, committee work already happens while debates are going on in the Chamber so I don’t see the point of this. At all.

Amen.

Seriously. I can’t believe that this actually needs to be pointed out.

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Roundup: The expanded deficit

The big news yesterday was of course Bill Morneau’s fiscal update, in which he said that the deficit was slated to rise to $18.4 billion – and then everyone freaked out. But if you take a breath, you’ll see that in there is about $6 billion of wiggle room (or “fudge” as Andrew Coyne called it) when they adjusted down the growth projections of private sector economists – which have been particularly optimistic. As well, much of the current-year deficit is driven by lower revenues rather than new spending, despite what the Conservatives say, which is why the Liberals thought it clever to remark in QP yesterday in response to questions about the deficit that the Conservatives and NDP would be cutting all over the place in order to keep a balanced budget (to which Lisa Raitt, on the evening politics shows, rather indignantly replied “You don’t know that.”)

As part of the changed fiscal picture, the “savings” the previous government booked for changing public service sick leave is now back in books (not that it would have actually achieved savings in the first place). Stephen Gordon wonders if spending to spur growth is the right policy when this period of low growth may not actually be temporary, but rather might be the new normal. Kevin Milligan on the other hand notes that because it’s so cheap to borrow right now that going into deficit won’t really cost as much in the future, as we are not in the same situation as we were 25 years ago. Maclean’s charts the worsening fiscal situation. Kevin Page has questions about the “holes” in the fiscal update. Morneau also hired Dominic Barton as a growth consultant, which likely means a focus on Asia.

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Roundup: Doing the policy heavy lifting

If you were to turn to the Big Book of Canadian Political Journalism Clichés, you’d find pages of tiresome and frankly libellous descriptions of the Senate of Canada. And oh, look – The Canadian Press drew from a number of them to craft the lead of their latest piece: “Canada’s Senate, often accused of being an anachronism, is being asked to wrestle with the futuristic dream of driverless cars.” Of course, the accusations of being an anachronism often come from clueless political journalists who recite the received wisdom around the Upper Chamber with little or no critical insight or understanding of Chamber, its actual role, or its operations, and they treat it like a joke, which makes ledes like this commonplace. “Isn’t it hilarious that the Senate is supposed to look at future technology? Aren’t they all ancient, napping in the Chamber? LOL,” and so on. And then this line a little further down in the piece: “His request for a Senate study is part of the Trudeau government’s attempt to recast the much-maligned upper house as an independent and valued institution that has an important parliamentary role to play.” Um, no, it doesn’t need to be recast as having an important role to play because they’ve always had it. The Senate has been doing the kinds of cutting-edge policy study and research that the Commons can’t or won’t for decades. Just in the last parliament alone, they studied things like BitCoin and crypto-currencies, and they have been debating legislation on growing issues like genetic privacy that the Commons continues to shirk while they snipe at one another over partisan issues. But hey, when asked to do a comprehensive study on the regulatory, policy and technical issues that need to be addressed by the growing field of driverless cars, hey, it’s all a big joke because it’s the Senate. That kind of tiresome attitude is part of why the studies and reports that come out of the Senate – which in many ways acts like a built-in think tank for Parliament (and a hugely cost-effective one at that) – tend to go under the radar. Some reports get a couple of days of press, such as the very good report on the Canada-US price differential (which the previous government then largely ignored when they went to craft legislation to close that gap – an issue now moot thanks to our falling dollar), but for the most part, the media will ignore the studies. It’s really a shame because there is a lot of good work in there that is worth a lot more discussion and attention, lest it gather dust on a shelf. But why actually turn to those studies when we can make jokes about the Senate, malign its denizens thanks to the actions of a couple of bad apples, and ignore the actual work while grumbling that they aren’t elected? It’s too bad that We The Media can’t take these things more seriously, as we would all be better off as an informed citizenry as a result.

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Roundup: Clarity for First Nations titles

The Supreme Court has given a unanimous ruling granting a title claim to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation in BC, over a large area of land in the south central part of the province, ending a 25-year court battle over forestry claims and a 150-year dispute between that First Nation and the Crown. Because most of BC’s First Nations don’t have treaties yet with the government, this ruling impacts them in particular, and will make sure that the government has a greater role to play in fulfilling its consultative duties to First Nations as more resource and pipeline projects come up. The ruling also declares that provincial governments have regulatory authority over land obtained by First Nations people through court cases or land claim negotiations. While the ruling has been said to give clarity to negotiations, it also raises the possibility that some First Nations will abandon their negotiations with the government in favour of turning to the courts to establish title or land claims, which should be a red flag seeing as treaty negotiation is a Crown prerogative, and we should be careful about delegating it to the courts. Terry Glavin gives the backstory to the whole dispute dating back to 1864 here.

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Roundup: Aftermath of a weekend convention

Justin Trudeau delivered his big speech on Saturday, and it was fairly well received, if still light on policy specifics. (Video here, with keynotes from Harper and Mulcair for comparison). He promised no new taxes, which immediately raises doubts about the affordability of his plans, and he landed a few blows against Harper in there, about the person who appointed Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin campaigning on the strength of his judgement, and how his wasn’t the party of Sir John A Macdonald, which was a calculated means of trying to undermine Harper’s base. Part of the speech included a fictional “Nathalie” as Trudeau’s example of an everywoman to showcase his commitment to the middle class, which is a technique apparently used successfully by the Obama camp. The Maclean’s team dissected the speech and what the key points meant, while Paul Wells offers a stand-alone analysis on how Trudeau is the first leader since Chrétien to be automatically accepted by the party without labouring to, and how he’s now knocking at Harper’s door, changing the political dynamics in this country.

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Roundup: Charitable travel expenses

As it happens, charities like World Vision and Engineers Without Borders have been using their funds to send MPs on trips to regions that they’re assisting. Rather than, you know, spending those thousands of dollars on their projects to help the poor and needy in developing countries. This isn’t to say that the MPs are being improper, or that they’re using the trips as some kind of vacation because let’s face it – nobody could argue that case at all. But it does remind us that there are reasons why we should give MPs travel budgets so that they can do trips like this in the service of their duties, rather than forcing charities to pay for it, or for them to take trips from foreign or corporate interests. Of course, any travel that does happen gets people like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in a big twist because OMG taxpayers’ hard earned dollars are supporting MPs on foreign travel isn’t that just horrible and awful! Erm, except that if we expect them to learn about their files and the policies they’re legislating on – and that can mean more than just the MPs on the foreign affairs committee – then we should also realise that we should be able to pay for it too.

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Roundup: Tariff changes and iPod taxes

It was a game of partisan back-and-forth yesterday as Mike Moffatt of the Richard Ivey School of Business noticed that one of the tariff changes in the budget might mean an increase five percent increase in the cost of MP3 players and iPods. Might. But the NDP were immediately gleeful that the government that lambasted them with the notion of an “iPod tax” (after they wanted a levy on the very same MP3 players for the sake of content creators) might have egg on their face, and sent out press releases quoting Moffatt, which is not without irony considering how often Moffatt calls the NDP out on their economic illiteracy. And Flaherty wasn’t having any of it either, noting a general tariff exemption on devices that you plug into a computer – which would include an iPod. But the tariff tables are maddeningly complex, Moffatt points out, and it was likely an accident that nobody caught.

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Roundup: Trudeau pile-on while committee vote-athon continues

Justin Trudeau said something a bit impolitic in an interview two years ago about how Quebeckers were tired of Albertan prime ministers and how having more Quebeckers in positions of power would be better for the country – all in the context of pandering to a Quebec audience while fighting for his seat against separatists, which is not wholly unexpected. But SunTV “revealed” it yesterday, and suddenly everyone lost their minds. Because we had nothing better to talk about, apparently. Also lost in the pile-on was the old Reform ad campaign about “no more prime ministers from Quebec, “ but hey, that’s all in the past, right? And it’s not like politicians in this country could ever be accused of regionalism, ever. Anyway, Trudeau refused to apologise, and simply declared it to have been taken out of context, for what it’s worth.

Over in the Commons finance committee, voting continues apace on the 3000+ amendments that Scott Brison introduced, and because the Conservatives and NDP on the committee voted to change their own rules, so that the amendments would be kept in the committee rather than going to the House once time elapsed, the voting continues in committee. Kady O’Malley has been liveblogging the proceedings diligently.

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Roundup: Between 67 and 159 votes

The Speaker has whittled down 871 amendments to between 67 and 159 votes, depending. In other words, about 18 to 26 hours of consecutive votes, more or less, which they’re now preparing themselves for. Speaker Scheer also ruled that because there are no firm rules for omnibus bills that this one is permissible, but hey, why don’t you guys lay down some rules for the future over in the Procedure and House Affairs Committee. And so, the votes will take place probably Wednesday, and probably starting late at night since the government also moved to extend sitting hours to midnight every night for the remaining two weeks.

With the ruling on May’s point of order in mind, after QP, Nathan Cullen tried to argue that the omnibus budget bill has become a contempt of parliament because the government won’t release the data on the cuts to the Parliamentary Budget Officer.

Scott Brison takes to the pages of the National Post to say that the issue of income inequality is not a left-or-right issue, but one that Parliament should be addressing.

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