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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Roundup: Government vs opposition duties

While I’ve written on the topic before, comments made by Government House Leader Bardish Chagger on her tabled “discussion paper” on trying to make the House of Commons more “efficient” really rankled over the weekend. In particular, Chagger said the proposals were trying to find the balance between the government’s “duty to pass legislation and the opposition’s right to be heard.”

No. Just no. And here’s Philippe Lagassé to explain why.

The whole point of Parliament is not to ensure that government passes legislation. The point is to hold it to account, and that often means slowing it down and ensuring that it doesn’t overstep its bounds, which it is wont to do. Already it’s a problem that government backbenchers don’t do their duty and due diligence when it comes to keeping a check on the government – most are happy to toe the line in order to be considered for a cabinet post, which is a problem in and of itself, and we’ve seen this attitude of being “team players” amplify in the last number of years, particularly after the minority government years, when message discipline became paramount above all else, which is why I worry about how the backbenches will react to this proposition by the government. Will they willingly surrender their responsibilities of accountability because they want to be seen as being onside with Cabinet (particularly after the recent defeats of cabinet on those private members’ bills and Senate public bills?) Maybe.

What worries me more is the way that Chagger phrased the opposition’s “right to be heard.” We’re seeing increasingly that with this government and their insistence on constant broad consultations, they will listen, then go ahead with their original plans. I worry that this is how they are starting to feel about parliament – that they’ll hear the concerns of the opposition or the Senate, and then bully through regardless. Parliament is not a focus group to “consult” with, and I’m not sure that they’re quite getting that, particularly given Chagger’s statement. Accountability is not just politely listening, and the opposition is not there to just deliver an opposing viewpoint. There needs to be a tension and counter-balance, and right now I’m not sure that this government quite gets the need for that tension, particularly when they keep mouthing platitudes about working together collaboratively and whatnot. Then again, I’m not sure that the opposition necessarily gets the extent of their responsibilities either, which is depressing. Regardless, Chagger’s case for these reforms is built on a foundation of sand. Most should be fully opposed and defeated soundly for the sake of the very existential nature of our parliament.

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Roundup: Recall legislation nonsense

Over at Loonie Politics, fellow columnist Jonathan Scott wonders if recall legislation might not be a good thing for ethical violations, and cites the examples of Senators Don Meredith, Lynn Beyak, and a York Region school trustee who used a racial slur against a Black parent. While I’m suspicious about recall legislation to begin with, two of the examples are completely inappropriate, while the third was an example of someone who resigned a few days later, making the need for such legislation unnecessary in the first place.

Recall legislation for senators is a bit boggling, first of all, because they weren’t elected to the position, and they have institutional independence so that they can speak truth to power and have the ability to stop a government with a majority precisely so that they can hit the brakes on runaway populism if need be. Recall legislation would be fed by that similar populist sentiment, which is a problem. I’m also baffled, frankly, how anyone could conceivably consider Meredith and Beyak in the same sentence. Meredith abused his position to sexually lure a minor, while Beyak said some stupid and odious things under the rubric of religious sentiment (i.e. at least some residential school survivors stayed Christians, so that apparently justifies everything). The two are not comparable, nor is Beyak’s example any kind of an ethical violation, nor am I convinced that it’s an offence worthy of resignation because at least there’s the possibility that she can learn more about why what she said was so wrong-headed. Sure, people are upset with it, while others are performing outrage over social media because that’s what we do these days, but trying to channel that sentiment into recall legislation raises all kinds of alarm bells because even if you had a fairly high bar or findings from an ethics officer to trigger these kinds of recall elections (and the suggested 2500 signatures of constituents is too low of an added bar), temporary performed outrage demanding action this instant would be constantly triggering these kinds of fights. If you think there are too many distractions in politics to the issues of the day, this would make it all the worse.

As for Meredith, while he is too shameless to resign of his own accord, the rest of the Senate is not likely to let this issue slide for too long. The only question is really how effectively they can implement a system of due process by which Meredith can plead his case before them and respect the rules of natural justice before they hold a vote to vacate his seat based on the findings of the Senate Ethics Officer. Demanding recall legislation after a story is only a couple of days old is the height of foolishness. The Senate doesn’t sit for another two weeks, which is time that frankly they’ll need to get their ducks in a row so that they don’t come back half-cocked and try and ham-fist the process like they did with Duffy/Wallin/Brazeau back in the day. Meredith will get his due, and we won’t need the threat of ridiculous legislation to try and keep politicians in line.

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Roundup: A different debate

This weekend we finally saw our first NDP leadership debate, which was actually more watchable than pretty much any Conservative debate we’ve had so far, so that’s something. Having only four candidates on stage instead of fourteen makes a difference, as does having everyone already in caucus rather than coming in from the outside, and no one so far seems to be running against their own caucus, so that’s also something. As with any NDP debate, however, it was less “debate” and more statements by which they could vehemently agree with and then say “I agree, and let me take that further and say…”

The only real cleavage that there was over the course of the event was over the role of the resource economy and if there could be a case made for pipelines, and a couple of the candidates were more strident than others. Otherwise, there was a lot of the usual key words and phrases that signal their audience, like the “neoliberal agenda,” the growing one percent (err, except they’re not growing in Canada, and have in fact been shrinking), “unfair trade deals,” and renegotiating NAFTA. If one wasn’t careful, it could be mistaken for a Trump rally.

The format and fewer candidates did allow for a number of non-policy related questions, but some of them were a bit…suspicious, if I can use the word, like they were designed to ensure that they were reinforcing in-group credentials vouching. Maybe it’s just me, but it felt a bit creepy in places.

Meanwhile, I would encourage you to read the very trenchant observations from John Geddes, who nailed pretty much what each of the four candidates are running on out of the gate.

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Roundup: A reasonable plea for restitution

Retired Senator Sharon Carstairs is looking to be reimbursed for some $80,000 in legal fees after being caught up in the Auditor General’s report on expenses, and it’s a tale that exposes how shabbily many senators were treated in the wake of that report. To recap, that AG report essentially made up a bunch of rules that did not exist, particularly around how many days a year constituted “primary residency,” which Carstairs got caught up in. And in a rush to show the public that they were taking this report seriously, the Senate turned over the report directly to the RCMP, and Carstairs was left trying to keep her reputation intact, hence retaining counsel and trying to explain that she hadn’t broken any rules.

What needs to be repeated again with this story is just how problematic that AG report was. When the Senate later retained its own counsel to go over that report to see if they should try to sue any of the senators who had refused to repay or seek arbitration for the identified sums (which included Carstairs), that legal review laid bare the arbitrary rules that the AG imposed as part of his review, and essentially how shoddily it was done. And I know several senators who simply opted to pay back the sum rather than keep fighting it because they wanted it to go away – Carstairs refused, and it looks like she’s going to be punished for it, whether financially with the loss (the maximum reimbursement for legal fees under Senate rules is generally $25,000), but also with the loss of reputation. I would hope that the Senate has had enough time since the audit that they can now revisit this case and offer the apology and what restitution they can, and admit that they were hasty in their actions because they were trying to appease a public that was baying for blood post-Duffy, for what good it did them. I would also hope that more of my media colleagues would also start calling out the AG for the problems in his report when cases like Carstairs’ come up again in the media, but I suspect that won’t happen, as we pay far too much deference to him as being untouchable and infallible, when clearly that’s not the case.

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Roundup: Nomination shenanigans?

It looks like there are some shenanigans in Liberal nomination races for a couple of those upcoming by-elections, and as many a pundit has been saying today, Liberals gonna Liberal. And you can pretty much chalk this up to one more great big disappointment between the lofty Liberal rhetoric about valuing open nominations and then doing shady things like they have with the nominations in both Saint-Laurent and with Markham-Thornhill.

Part of what doesn’t make sense from an optics perspective is the sudden rush to call the last two by-elections for the two most recently vacated seats. In both Ottawa-Vanier and the two Calgary seats, there has been plenty of lead-time and nominations happened with nary a peep, but in the last two, the sudden rush has meant problems. With Markham-Thornhill, they retroactively cut off membership sales, which is presumed to help the “chosen” candidate, former PMO staffer Mary Ng. Ng’s campaign says they lost hundreds of registered members too, but again, this is about optics. Meanwhile in Saint-Laurent, a current Montreal borough mayor was declared not to have passed the green-light committee but they refuse to say why, which is seen as clearing the path for “star candidate” Yolande James (though there is still one other candidate, so it’s not an acclamation). But while they may have reasons for not greenlighting said borough mayor, the fact that they refuse to say why is again a nightmare for optics when this is supposed to be the party of openness, transparency and open and fair nominations.

Part of why this is such a disappointment is because we really need to push back from party leaders’ interference in nomination races if we want to restore the balance in our politics. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be safety mechanisms in the event of hijacked nominations (because there absolutely should be), but those mechanisms shouldn’t be the leader’s office. A strong grassroots is essential in our system, and with every time that the leaders and their offices interfere (because they feel emboldened to thanks to the bastardized system of leadership selection that we’ve come to adopt and go full-bore on at every single opportunity), we choke off the most fecund part of our democracy. Shenanigans and the apparently hypocrisy of proclaiming open nominations while appearing to play favourites undermines the bottom-up practice of politics, and it’s something we as Canadians need to push back against in every party.

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Roundup: A jobs crisis report rooted in fancy

The Conservatives released their Alberta Jobs Taskforce report yesterday – a make-work project to make it look like they were paying attention to the plight of the province’s resource-driven downturn, never mind that it wasn’t going to actually do anything because they’re not in government. The eleven recommendations that it came up with were…ambitious. I won’t say magic (such as the Ontario NDP’s Hydro plan, also released yesterday, relied on), but I will say that it relies a lot on wishing and hoping instead.

To start off with, the top recommendation is to eliminate the proposed carbon tax – which is provincial jurisdiction, not federal, to be clear – and to reduce corporate and small business taxes along with reversing CPP contribution increases. These are typical Conservative bugaboos, so it’s not a surprise we would see these recommendations. “Reducing red tape” for resource projects? It’s like the Conservatives forgot that when they tried to do that when they were in office, it backfired on them and created even bigger headaches as the lack of due diligence, particularly around dealing with First Nations, landed them in court numerous times. Encourage retraining? Provincial jurisdiction. Review EI to “improve efficiency”? You mean like their ham-fisted attempt at doing that a couple of years ago that cost them every Atlantic Canadian seat that they had? Recommendation five is particularly interesting because it calls on both a) reducing red tape for starting small businesses while b) creating tax credits to hire unskilled workers. Ask any small business and they’ll tell you the worst red tape is the complex tax code, so asking for the creation of yet more tax credits is to work against the first demand. Coherence! Implement programs to encourage hiring of recent graduates (sounds like big government), while increasing financial literacy across Canada? Erm, how does that actually help youth? I don’t get the connection. Lower interprovincial trade barriers? Well, considering that every government has tried doing that since 1867, and that the Conservatives didn’t make any tangible progress in their nine years in office, I’m not sure that Alberta hurting now is going to suddenly fixate everyone to solve that problem. Adjust domestic policy to the new Trumpocalypse reality? Seriously? There is no policy coherence coming from the States, so how can Canada “adjust” to it? Reform credentials-matching for new immigrants and the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme? Again, if it were easy, the Conservatives would have done it when they were in power. And finally, balance the budget? How does this solve Alberta’s job woes? Oh wait, it doesn’t. It’s just yet another Conservative bugaboo that they’re trying to hit the government with, using Alberta’s jobs crisis as the cudgel.

I’m sure that they spent time on this, but honestly, I’m less than impressed with the suite of recommendations. The lack of coherence and insistence that nigh-intractable problems should be solved now when they haven’t been for decades is more than fanciful.

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Roundup: “Prominent” Canadians demand unicorns

Yesterday, the “Every Voter Counts Alliance,” which is a proportional representation umbrella group that includes our friends at Fair Vote Canada got a group of “prominent Canadians” to call on the government to implement a “made-in-Canada” PR system. And while most of these “prominent Canadians” are the usual suspects, they got a few added names including a former Chief Electoral Officer (whom I will note has tried promoting a “rural-urban proportional system” that the Supreme Court would immediately frown upon). Meanwhile, here are a few reminders about just what a “made-in-Canada” PR system is referring to.

Handwavey. Nonsense.

The reason why people like these keep going back to his notion that there’s a “made-in-Canada” system that we can somehow devise that will somehow manage to overcome the constitutional obstacles and at the same time providing their precious proportionality and will somehow deliver all of the supposed goodness that comes along with it despite the fact that we’re a vast country with a sparse population and fairly entrenched regional divisions, is because they don’t actually know how it will look. They just expect someone to figure it out and then present it to them, and it will be so wonderful that there will be no unintended consequences, we won’t wind up with thirty splinter parties, that it won’t give rise to far-right parties like pretty much every other PR system has, that it will lead to stable coalition governments that won’t have big policy “swings” every few years, and there will be no problems. No actual trade-offs. Just a new golden age of democracy.

But if they’re trying to pin their hopes on the Electoral Reform committee and its work, well, I wouldn’t hold my breath. As I’ve discussed elsewhere about why it’s a bad idea from a governance and accountability point of view, and as Kady O’Malley reminds us that the committee never actually came to any kind of consensus, and as I will remind you yet again, their report was a steaming pile of hot garbage. It’s not going to happen. What they’re asking for is magic. Unicorns and gumdrops, and not reality.

It’s time to let the demands for proportionality go. They won’t actually improve governance or representation, because it’s built solely on the emotional response of sore-loserism. We have a system that functions (and would function even better if we undid the “reforms” that were supposed to improve things but only made them worse). Trying to break it even further to satisfy this emotional need for perceived “fairness” which is not actually a Thing is only going to do just that – break it. Time to grow up and actually learn how the system works.

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Roundup: Divorcing commentary from policy

So, it’s now official that Kevin O’Leary is throwing his hat in the race (though, it should be said, he still hasn’t filed his paperwork and paid his entry fees). And already, he’s making outrageous statements like how all of his previous commentary doesn’t count because it was just commentary and not policy that he’ll be judged on (not sure it works that way). But he keeps saying “That was good television but it’s not policy.”

Or there’s already the bald-faced wrong numbers he’s pushing, whether it’s around the country’s fiscal situation, certain programmes like defence spending, or even growth figures.

And while that’s all well and good, Chris Selley makes some very good points about the places where O’Leary diverges from the party’s base, whether it’s on CBC, peacekeeping or not being concerned about terrorism. That could make him a tough sell with them, particularly on issues that they’ve been vocal about for the past couple of decades.

But despite that, I have to say that it’s not only his name recognition that gives him and advantage in this race, but the fact that he’s going to appeal to a particular demographic in the party that fetishizes businessmen in politics (as though the skillsets were remotely similar, which they’re not), and particularly brash businessmen are swelling everyone’s trousers of late, especially when they boast about things like the “language of jobs” or being able to “read a balance sheet” (which O’Leary has yet to provide concrete evidence that he can, given that he apparently couldn’t read the actual context of that fiscal projection that got him so alarmed that he just had to join the race).

He’s also been playing his cards right, as Adam Daifallah points out here, whether it’s with the “phony war” by staying relevant while “thinking about” his decision, his social media execution, his upstaging the French debate and lowering those expectations for himself. And more than anything, the race, with its 14 candidates, most of them dull and beige, has been a bit of a snooze (Kellie Leitch’s constant nonsense aside), and O’Leary is going to shake that up. The other candidates have been telegraphing that they’re afraid of him for a while (hello Lisa Raitt’s “Stop Kevin O’Leary” website), and that means something. We’ll see just how much it means sooner than later.

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Roundup: Housakos vs Harder

It took a couple of weeks, but I will say that I was encouraged to read that Senator Leo Housakos was in the press pushing back against Senator Peter Harder’s comments that the Senate hasn’t been implementing changes to its processes as recommended by the Auditor General. As chair of the Internal Economy committee, Housakos has corrected the record to point out that yes, a lot of changes have happened (and in fact were happening since long before the now infamous audit happened), and also hit back at the issue of an audit committee. Harder it seems has bought into the AG’s wrong-headed notion that an external audit body be formed, which I will reiterate is absolutely an affront to parliamentary democracy. The Senate is a parliamentary body, and parliament is self-governing. It needs to be, full stop. Making senators answerable to an outside body puts a stake in the ability to be self-governing, and pretty much says that we don’t deserve to be a self-governing country anymore, and should just hand all of the power back to the Queen. That Harder can’t see that is blind and a little bit gobsmacking. While the Senate does plan to announce an audit body soon, it will be of mixed composition, and if they’ve paid attention to Senator McCoy’s proposal to mirror the House of Lords’ body – basically three senators and two outside experts – then we’ll be fine. But make no mistake – such a body must be majority senators and be chaired by a Senator. Otherwise let’s just start the process of shuttering parliament, and no, I’m not even being dramatic about it.

While we’re on the topic of the Senate, I just wanted to give a tip of my hat to now-retired Senator Nancy Ruth (who was on Power & Politics yesterday at 1:49:00 on this link). Nancy Ruth (that’s one name, like Cher or Madonna) was one of my early entry points into political journalism, when I came to the Hill writing for GLBT publications like the now-defunct Outlooks and Capital Xtra. As the only openly lesbian parliamentarian, and the only openly LGBT member of the Conservative caucus who wasn’t media shy, she was my point of contact into that caucus and that particular political sphere. The relationship I built there gave me my first by-line for The Canadian Press, and I eventually moved into more mainstream outlets. She was an absolute joy to cover, and I will miss her terribly.

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