Roundup: Morneau cleared – mostly

On her way out the door, now-former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released a statement saying that there was no ethics issue or conflicts of interest with Bill Morneau’s share sales, which blows the hysterical arguments about “insider trading” out of the water. As well they should be – these claims were never serious to begin with, and were part of the attempt to throw everything at the wall in the hopes that something, anything, would stick. This of course leaves the “investigation” into Morneau introducing Bill C-27 on pension reform while he still indirectly held those Morneau Shepell shares, and the opposition are still waving their hands around this and trying to insist that this is some kind of Major Ethical Issue, never mind that the allegations themselves depend on a fundamental misunderstanding with how ministers sponsor bills, and ignoring the fact that clearing bills with the Ethics Commissioner before they are tabled would be a violation of cabinet confidence and parliamentary privilege. But hey, we’ve already established that we don’t need plausibility or facts to get in the way of laying allegations – it’s simply about trying to build a “narrative” by whatever means necessary.

Meanwhile in Maclean’s, Paul Wells has a lengthy interview with Morneau about how his last six months have gone, and it’s a good read. The major takeaway in all of this is that Morneau and the cabinet got complacent after a string of successes, where they managed to get some pretty big wins despite initial grumbles from provinces around things CPP reform or healthcare premiums. The fact that they shopped those planned changes to private corporation tax rules several times and got no pushback meant that they let their guards down, and then with a combination of misrepresentation around what those changes were, and reporting that didn’t question those narratives, Morneau wound up blindsided, which was compounded by his dislike of being scrappy enough to respond to allegations and mistruths forcefully. One hopes that he’ll have learned his political lessons and that he’ll start stepping up a little sooner – and communicating better – but time will tell.

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Roundup: Shadow ministers vs critics

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is set to release his full critic list today, not only to be dubbed as a shadow cabinet, but with plans to style the critics as “shadow ministers.” Now, this is normally the kinds of British/Westminster nomenclature that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, which is why I suspect that a fanboy like Scheer is doing it, but I would raise a particular note of caution – that unless Scheer plans to actually have his “shadow minsters” act in the way that Westminster shadow ministers actually operate, then it’s going to quickly come across as a twee affectation.

So what kinds of differences would matter between a British shadow minister and a Canadian critic? For one, it’s a far more institutionalised role, where a shadow minister plays the function of someone who is able to fill the cabinet role immediately if the government were to fall, rather than the kinds of placeholders that we’ve come to expect in Canadian critic roles. Shadow ministers, in my observation, tend to be in place for a fairly long time and develop expertise in the portfolio, and they have more structured time to visit the departments and get briefings from civil servants, which doesn’t seem to be the way that Canadian critics operate (who do get some briefings, but in my estimation, are not to the same level). Of course, one of the reasons why is that cabinet construction in the UK doesn’t have to deal with the same regional considerations that Canada does, so it’s far easier to have someone who was in a shadow cabinet position slide into cabinet, whereas in Canada, the federalist calculations may not work out.

Another key difference is that UK shadow ministers are not members of select committees, whereas in Canada, critics are leads for their party on standing committees. Why this is different is because in the UK, it not only lets the shadow minister spend more time with their portfolio, but it gives the committee members more independence because they don’t have the lead on the file shepherding them. Just by numbers alone, I’m guessing that this isn’t going to happen here (another advantage to the UK’s House of Commons having 650 members instead of 338). One could also remark that the current Conservative Party in Canada hasn’t demonstrated a great deal of willingness to give committees a great deal of independence (especially seeing as they turned them into branch plants of the ministers’ offices during the Harper years), but who knows? Maybe Scheer is more serious about it. But unless he wants to reform the way his critics operate, then I’m less sold on billing them as “shadow ministers.”

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Roundup: A shuffle and a split

So, there was that relatively small cabinet shuffle yesterday, some of which was telegraphed in advance, some of which became the subject of wild speculation as Trudeau seemingly threw in a couple of red herrings for the pundits to go wildly chasing to no end (LeBlanc and Wilson-Raybould especially). In the end, the new faces are Seamus O’Regan at Veterans Affairs and Ginette Petitpas Taylor to Health, while Carla Qualtrough moves to Public Services and Procurement, Kent Hehr takes over sport and disabilities, and in the biggest move, Jane Philpott moves over to a split Indigenous Affairs portfolio, so that Carolyn Bennett now becomes minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Philpott becomes minister of Indigenous Services. While it’s hard to say that Hehr’s move is anything but a demotion, O’Regan’s move is being noted both for his close friendship with Justin Trudeau, as well as his move from rehab to the cabinet table, for what it’s worth. Also of note is the fact that new mandate letters will be forthcoming in the next few weeks, while there was a bit of panic when the old ones were re-issued with new names for the time being.

The real news is the fact that Bennett and Philpott’s joint mandate will be to ultimately dismantle Indigenous and Northern Affairs and to create two separate departments that will move the files toward greater self-governance and be a less paternalistic structure for Indigenous communities to deal with – especially since the current structure does not currently suit the North well for Inuit communities, or Métis. Complaints about the creaky bureaucracy hampering the Indigenous file are constant, and structural reform like this is probably the next logical step in moving those particular files forward, but there are already detractors moaning that this will just mean double the bureaucracy and double the obfuscation. Maybe. I’m also dismayed by commentary from the likes of Hayden King who dismiss what the government has done to date as being symbolism and process. Why that bugs me is because process is important. Democracy is process. Changing the fundamental ways in which things happen – i.e. process – is important can’t just be shrugged off because it doesn’t turn into an instant fix. These kinds of issues are systemic and stubborn, and sometimes changing process to get the wheels turning is actual progress, even if it takes a while to see the results. None of this happens overnight – indeed, dismantling INAC won’t either, and step one is yet another consultation process on what the end goals are going to look like so that they can make the split with those in mind. And no doubt, we’ll hear yet more naysayers, but these are changes that will take time to happen.

AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde is happy with the change as a next step to dismantling the Indian Act. Susan Delacourt sees Trudeau keeping his friends close in this shuffle, while Chantal Hébert notes that the Canada-US files remain untouched in the shuffle, which points to how Trudeau is targeted isolated problems while looking to stay the course with the NAFTA talks. Paul Wells looks at Jane Philpott as this government’s go-to fixer, while Aaron Wherry notes the two doctors now in charge of the Indigenous portfolios and what that may mean.

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Roundup: That fictional “crippling tax hike”

This particular exchange dominated my Twitter Machine feed over the weekend. And lo, it’s some of the same tired, disingenuous rhetoric that over this same issue we’ve been talking about for weeks, because apparently, that’s how we roll.

Of course, the point is to be disingenuous and raise a panic so that they can fundraise and data mine over it with this petition that Rempel is pushing, which is a model of political engagement that we really, really need to stop doing in this country, but unfortunately, we’re in the “If it works…” line of thinking, never mind the broader consequences.

Erin O’Toole decided he wanted to get in on the action to complain that these changes would affect “competitiveness.”

Because you know, facts are hard. And hey, Kevin Milligan went through and modelled the impact that those tax changes will actually have, and shockingly, it’s not what the Conservatives are trying to insist will happen. Imagine that.

Milligan left it with this helpful reminder that questioning is a good thing, but also reminded us that he too can bring the shade.

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Roundup: A complex figure

I really didn’t want to write about this topic, and yet we’re swarming with stories and thinkpieces about it, so in the interest of that, I’ll say a few words, however clumsy and inexpert. On the subject of Sir John A. Macdonald and the current vogue of removing his name from things, I find myself annoyed by so much of it. Part of it is because the sudden rush to start doing this smacks of the me-tooism that so often plagues our political discourse, especially on the left or “progressive” side of things. Having a discussion about Macdonald and his role in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people is not the same thing as removing Confederate monuments in the United States, and yet there is a kind of equivalency being proffered, including by a number of self-righteous activists. They’re different conversations, and trying to equate them does nobody any favours.

Second, Macdonald is a complex figure on pretty much every level. While there has been increasing agitation in his role in promulgating residential schools, or the much-repeated quote about reducing food aid to starving First Nations on the prairies following the collapse of buffalo herd populations, all of that all of this ignores context. While people keep insisting that Macdonald was the architect of genocide, any reading of history that I’ve done is that Macdonald was trying to prevent it, having seen what happened south of the border. The problem is that there was little conception as to how to go about doing it, and there was a great deal of political opposition to his doing do, when there were a great many voices who would have preferred that they starve. That Macdonald mitigated these calls and actually did deliver food aid (which was something that governments were certainly not in the business of in the 1800s), and tried to come up with plans to get them to transition to farming once they couldn’t hunt bison any longer (which didn’t take), and to give them the vote in order to involve them in the political life and decision-making of the country despite that they didn’t own land and would otherwise not eligible under the existing electoral laws of the time (leading to howls that he was giving them “special” rights, which subsequent Liberal governments stripped) – it all should mean something. Yes, what we recognise now as being cultural genocide was an attempt at staving off actual physical genocide. It’s why Macdonald created the Northwest Mounted Police – to ensure that there were orderly treaties rather than the mass slaughter done by the Americans in order to clear lands for settlement. We know this now as the violence of colonisation, while it was trying to do this without the loss of life in the United States is a complicating factor.

So yeah, Macdonald is complex, and you can’t just mark him down in the column of “racist promoter of genocide” and leave it at that, which is why we need conversations about history, but most of what passes for it over social media, between the woke voices crying genocide and their opponents decrying the erasure of history, is not a proper conversation. It also requires a recognition that history is an evolving process, and that adding voices to the narrative isn’t erasing it – it’s adding to it, even if it makes the picture more complicated (not that I’m seeing a desire for nuance on either side). And we’re going to have a lot more conversations about this going forward, if this guide of problematic figures is anything to go by. But given the state of the debate right now, I don’t have high hopes that it’ll be constructive in the immediate term.

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Roundup: Mike Duffy, white knight

Oh, Senator Mike Duffy. For his suffering, he has decided to launch a $7.8 million lawsuit against the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Senate itself. It’s not just about the two years of suspension without pay, or the reimbursement or legal fees, or indeed about the further clawbacks of his salary that the Senate undertook for his abuse of expense claims, or about the lost income from speaking fees that he could have claimed had he not been dragged through the process. No, Duffy is so concerned about the lack of Charter rights for those who work on the Hill that he’s willing to take on this multi-million-dollar lawsuit for the principle of the matter.

Such a hero.

Now, I will be the first to admit that yes, the way in which Duffy’s suspension handled was hugely problematic, and that his rights to due process were trampled on because of political expediency, it cannot be argued that the Senate was illegitimate in the way it acted because as a self-governing parliamentary body, the Senate not only has the ability to police its own, it is in fact the only body that can police its members because of parliamentary privilege and institutional independence.

While Duffy’s lawyer was effusive in his characterisation of Duffy’s acquittal, I’m not sure that it completely passes the smell test – Duffy was found not to have met the criminal test for fraud and breach of trust, but you cannot say that no rules were broken. The Senate has pointed to numerous examples where this was the case and fined him appropriately, and while he claims that the rules were too loose and vague, that is certainly not the case with all of his rejected claims. And it will raise questions if this suit goes ahead because the judge’s ruling was indeed problematic (and I know for a fact that there are other judges on that same bench who were not keen on it), and without an appeal being raised, that could raise more questions with this trial – if it goes to trial.

Of course, we can’t deny that perhaps Duffy is looking for a settlement of a couple of million dollars, but I’m not sure that of the parties involved, the Senate would bite and go for it. They are still pretty sore about the whole thing and are keen to continue to prove that they are taking a hard line to those who abuse it. I would wager that they are more likely to fight this to the bitter end on principle, come what may.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt sees an odd parallel between Duffy and Omar Khadr in that their rights were violated (which is a bit of a stretch, legally speaking), while Christie Blatchford suggests that perhaps Duffy is indeed owed something because his rights to due process were robbed.

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Roundup: Dealing with problematic senators

While the focus one on one senator’s words regarding residential schools yesterday, a bombshell dropped late in the day with the Senate Ethics Officer’s report into allegations that Senator Don Meredith had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl, and that will no doubt fill the airwaves tomorrow. But while everyone is baying for blood, let me offer a few bits of context.

First, with Senator Beyak and her remarkably clueless statements about residential schools, no, the government cannot ask for her resignation as the NDP are demanding they do. The Senate has institutional independence in order to act as a check on government, so they are powerless. As for the demands that the Conservatives kick her out of caucus, that might do more harm than good because at least within a caucus, she can be managed and hopefully do less harm, and perhaps guided into some education on the subject rather than simply cutting her loose and empowering her to keep making this an issue. And while I think her statement is odious, I also don’t think she meant malice by it, but rather that she is utterly clueless by virtue of framing the issue entirely through her Christianity, and that’s a world view that she’s entitled to hold, no matter what we may think of it. (And seriously, don’t make her a martyr for her religious beliefs). So while I get that there are a lot of people who want to perform outrage and demand her head, I think everyone needs to calm down a little and think through what they’re demanding.

As for Meredith, the report now goes to the Senate ethics committee, but given that the Senate isn’t sitting for the next two weeks, we’ll have to be patient. There are already demands that he be removed, but without a criminal conviction, that’s very difficult to do, and the police opted not to charge him for this (possibly because the complainant stopped cooperating with the police, but I’m not 100 percent sure on that fact, so take it with a grain of salt). With the Ethics Officer’s report, however, one could hope that the police could reopen their investigation. That said, removing a sitting senator without a criminal conviction is almost impossible. There is the possibility that the Senate could vote unanimously to declare his seat vacant, but it’ll be a high bar for other senators to reach that point, because they’re going to want to ensure that he gets due process (which Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were not necessarily given at the time of their expulsion). But one can be sure that the Senate will want to take their time and deliberate on this one, so while it’s possible that we’ll see a suspension motion when they return, it could be a while before they decide on how to deal with him on a longer-term or permanent basis.

And barring that, maybe the Senate needs to consider a policy of phasing out certain senators…

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Roundup: Not a council of elders

As his retirement date fast approaches, outgoing Liberal Senator James Cowan is once again warning against Peter Harder’s plans to disband partisan caucuses in the Senate, fearing that trying to make it “council of elders” or advisory body will make it less effective as a body. He’s right, of course, but I would refine that a little more in saying that it would make the Senate less effective in holding the government to account, which is one of its key features, and in fact, one of the features that defines a Westminster-style parliament.

There are other ways in which effectiveness might be blunted in that any kinds of legislation, inquiries or studies that Senators might otherwise champion could be more easily diffused and go nowhere given that there would be little in the way or organizational capacity to have like-minded senators help move it forward. Having 101 loose fish is a poor way to run an effective body, and yet that is what some people think that an “independent” chamber means, rather than focusing on one that is less partisan and that far more easily works across party lines to get the work done that is being asked of them. And it totally wouldn’t have to do with a Government Leader – err, “government representative” would would rather have a body of independent senators that he can manipulate and manoeuvre as he and his political masters wish. Perish the thought.

This having all been said, we’ll miss Senator Cowan greatly. He’s been a credit to the institution and provided a great deal of leadership during a difficult few years for his caucus.

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Roundup: Fledgling government delays

Delays seem to be the word of the day for the fledgling government – delays in getting the refugees here (but that’s happening), delays in getting committees up and running (thanks in no small part to NDP and Bloc wrangling) – though they did finally name the assisted dying committee members today, and it looks like there are now delays in getting the new Independent appointments committee for naming new senators up and running. This means that those promised five new “independent” senators won’t likely be chosen before Parliament comes back, nor will the new government “representative” be chosen from one of those five as intended. That could start being a problem for the government as they start looking to outline their agenda and figure out what they’re going to start sending over to the Senate in terms of legislation. Mind you, it’s not too late for the government to do the right thing and appoint an existing senator to the post (because it makes absolutely no sense to put someone with no Senate experience into the role – it really doesn’t), and then figure out how to keep the relationship as arm’s length as possible while still letting parliament function as it should, with government and opposition sides that help keep debate and accountability going. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, can We The Media please stop this whole “The Senate has traditionally been a partisan dumping ground” line? It’s a gross exaggeration of the truth, and it neglects the fact that a lot of eminently qualified people who weren’t just party hacks were appointed. Yes, some of them chose to behave a bit unfortunately once appointed because they thought they had do (particularly true of the way that Harper’s poor appointment process corrupted a generation of senators), but on the whole? We had some pretty great appointments on both sides for a lot of years. Stephen Harper and his PMO upsetting the balance should not be held up as the norm of the chamber’s history any more than the small number of senators with questionable expenses should be treated as a reflection on the vast majority who didn’t. But by all means, keep repeating the received wisdom (and in some cases mendacious gossip) about the Chamber and its denizens. It’s really helping us live up to our role of educating the public as to what goes on in Parliament.

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Roundup: Playing Duffy’s game

It didn’t take long, but the repudiations rolled in today of the story that Duffy wanted to be named an Ontario senator instead of a PEI senator. Senior anonymous Conservatives disputed that fact, though it is fairly well known that Duffy did have concerns about his residency, which is why Marjory LeBreton’s office had that political memo drafted to justify the appointment as constitutional – note that it was a political memo and not a legal one. When it was first reported on Tuesday that Duffy wanted to be appointed as an Ontario senator, it raised red flags with me as it was contrary to years of anecdotes about Duffy’s quest to be a PEI senator, right to the fact that he would check the pulse of an aging PEI senator every time he shook his hand, or the fact that he would play up his Islander heritage for his whole career. In other words, it sounded self-serving and likely out of the Duffy camp in order to try and deflect blame onto the Prime Minister – and that’s exactly the trap that the NDP fell into, when they again made an issue out of it in scrums and in QP. Yes, Harper bears responsibility for the appointment, and yes, if he was going to appoint Duffy as a PEI senator, he should have ensured that Duffy moved back there first (and likewise with Carolyn Stewart Olsen in New Brunswick), but we all know that the December 2008 appointments were made in a panic and the usual checks were left undone. It’s not a conspiracy, the way that the NDP keep trying to portray it. It was one cascading series of bad decisions and the associated damage control. Trying to paint it as nefarious rather than utterly incompetent isn’t really helpful, and it doesn’t make it any easier to make Harper’s judgement a ballot issue. Taking the nefarious angle plays into the narrative that Duffy has been trying to build for himself when he got caught out and tried painting himself as the poor victim in all of this, and I’m not sure that the NDP are doing themselves any favours by playing Duffy’s game for him.

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