Roundup: Blame Dawson or the system?

As the Bill Morneau imbroglio starts to fade behind the outrage du jour, being the Paradise Papers, Andrew Coyne decided to take another crack at the issue, this time taking a swing at Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and her handling – or mishandling – of the whole affair from the beginning. The problem of course is that Coyne’s piece relies heavily on commentary from local civically illiterate crank and guaranteed quote machine Duff Conacher, for whom everything is evil and wrong, and why he hasn’t yet been labelled a vexatious litigant by the courts is beyond me. Regardless, it cannot be denied that yes, Dawson herself is a problem, but not the only problem.

A few days ago, Andrew Potter wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail about the whole sordid history of why we have the Commissioner position in the first place, and why it has always been a problem. And he’s right in pointing out that the point of this position has been politicized from the beginning, but as with so many of our watchdog or “Independent Officer of Parliament” positions these days, they exist as much to deflect problems onto as they do to act as the instrument by which the opposition can use as both a cudgel to launch their attacks, and a shield to hide behind if there is any counter-fire.

And to that end, we can’t simply blame Dawson herself – as much as she is and always has been part of the problem. Much of that lies on MPs themselves, who created the regime, wrote rules that don’t include ethics guidelines, and when presented with the litany of problems with the legislation, shrug and make minor tweaks without addressing the big stuff. And it happens constantly, so when imagined scandals happen, they can scream and rail that just following the rules isn’t good enough, but that the alleged transgressor must have known better and should have exceeded them. Never mind that it’s a nonsense frame to put around issues, but these are also the same rules that those MPs put into place. Saying that the rules they created for themselves aren’t good enough is galling, and one has to constantly ask why they didn’t create rules that were good enough in the first place if they knew that there were problems – and yes, they did know, because Dawson herself identified them. It’s childish politics, and just manages to make a farce out of their feigned outrage (not surprisingly).

Meanwhile, Conacher managed to get a whole piece out of the Star by complaining that the government is wrong in saying there aren’t enough qualified candidates for the Ethics and Lobbying Commissioner positions because he applied for the Lobbying Commissioner position and hasn’t been chosen. Err, that may be a reflection on you, Duff, and this exercise in your ego may be part of the reason why you’re not chosen.

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Roundup: The Speaker’s clock

The CBC has a video segment released today talking to Commons Speaker Geoff Regan about the countdown clock in the Commons when it comes to things like Question Period, and how he enforces the 35-second rule for questions and answers.

While it’s a nice video explanation, and demonstrates that Regan will allow a few seconds’ grace when necessary, it does go to demonstrate part of what isn’t functioning with the way we’re doing things like Question Period – or even regular debate, for that matter. By enforcing strict clocks, we’ve incentivised a culture of filling that space rather than it being an upper limit. Even in QP, where it’s a simple yes-of-no question, the temptation to fill all 35 seconds with canned talking points usually wins out (though the three-word yes-or-no Mr. Speaker replies do occasionally happen and make my day). Also, the 35 second clock encourages ministers to read replies in order to ensure that they stay within the limit rather than going over – and that tends to lead to a greater reliance on talking points than substantive answers.

As I’ve written about several times, I think this video is a demonstration as to why we need to loosen the clock. I’ve also witnessed in Senate QP where there is no defined clock, where you can get far more substantive questions and answers (though the Senate Speaker does need to reign them in a bit – some senators will speechify during a question, and sometimes the visiting minister will ramble). But loosening the clock and empowering the Speaker to better manage that time – along with a ban on scripts – will go a long way to improving the flow of debate in the Commons, rather than the farce that we have today.

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Roundup: Don’t take conventions to court

A group of East Coast lawyers has decided to launch a court challenge about the possibility that the government might appoint a new Supreme Court justice that is not from Atlantic Canada, and my head is already hitting the desk because while you can conceivably argue that the regional composition of the court may very well be a constitutional convention, by that very same argument, a constitutional convention is non-justiciable, so you can’t actually take it to court.

So, to recap, until an appointment is actually made, the whole quixotic venture is premature. Constitutional conventions are politically enforceable but not legally, in part because we don’t actually want people to constantly take the government to court when they lose at politics (which already happens too much – and it’s almost as bad as writing to the Queen when you lose at politics). There was a court case not too long ago when Democracy Watch took the government to court because Stephen Harper went to the Governor General to call an early election despite the (useless) fixed-election date legislation having been enacted, and the courts dismissed it because prerogative powers are constitutional conventions (and while unwritten, are nevertheless still part of our constitutional framework).

And don’t get me wrong – I do think there is a very good case that the regional composition is a constitutional convention because it reflects the federalist principle that is necessary to give its decisions the political legitimacy necessary to be the arbiter of jurisdictional disputes in this country, and that is a pretty big consideration. But the courts are probably not the best place to solve this issue. Having the Atlantic premiers write the Justice Minister to warn her about breaching the convention is probably a better course of action, as would having backbench Liberal MPs from the region expressing their displeasure (though, for all we know, they may already be doing so behind closed doors in the caucus room). And a public campaign that lays out this argument (as opposed to just one centred around it being unfair or about maligning the political correctness of trying to find a new justice that better reflects certain diversity characteristics) wouldn’t hurt either. But this group of lawyers should know better than to try and make a non-justiciable issue justiciable.

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Roundup: Mister Speaker is a meanie

While astute readers will know that I have my issues with the way that Speaker Regan is attempting to crack down on heckling in the Commons, one thing I will not countenance is the kind of whinging that the opposition – and in particular the Conservatives – are engaged in as a result. Yes, the Speaker does call them out more, because *gasp* they heckle more! Science! But what gets the Conservatives most are the ways in which Regan will sometimes editorialise in his interventions, whether it’s his admonition to keep the Chamber from sounding like a 1950 boys’ club, or in reminding two front-bench Conservatives that Question Period is not the Muppet Show. It is a different tone from the Speaker than we’ve seen in the last several parliaments, and Regan is adopting a more forceful tone when it comes to trying to put an end to heckling. I may disagree with how he’s doing it, and in particular his sanctimonious tone, but his naming actual MPs who are heckling is part of the process of trying to turn the tables so that they are being held to account for their behaviour. It’s a legitimate tactic, but to complain that he’s picking on the Conservatives is a bit rich. Yes, the Liberals were boisterous when they were in opposition, and nobody is saying that’s a bad thing, but even when in government, the Conservatives tended to be boorish hecklers, and their behaviour in opposition is not much improved. If they had instructive cross-talk or clever retorts, then yeah, it might not be so bad, but most of the time, it’s not clever. I will also add that this is part of the problem with the issue of heckling in the Commons – everyone agrees that it’s a problem, everyone insists that they don’t do it, even when they do, and it’s always someone else who’s worse and needs to be dealt with instead of them, because they’re always the victim in this. None of it is true, but MPs like to tell themselves that it is. It’s also a problem in that making the Speaker crack down on it is more about trying to treat symptoms than it is the actual cause of why they’re doing it in the first place, but that would mean more broad changes to the rules and the way that things run, and there seems to be even more resistance to that. Until MPs can have a grown-up conversation about the issue of heckling, we’re likely to get more whinging on all sides of the issue rather than actual progress.

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QP: Demands for free votes on Energy East

Monday, and old habits are starting to rear their heads — neither Trudeau nor Mulcair were present, Trudeau in meetings, and Mulcair in La Loche, Saskatchewan. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read a question about jobs in the resource sector, demanding support for their opposition day motion on Energy East. Jim Carr noted that they needed to establish a credible process if they wanted to get resources to market. Ambrose decried Trudeau killing off Northern Gateway with the tanker ban on the west coast, to which Carr reminded her of the lack of trust in the regulatory process under the previous government. Ambrose tried again to get support for the motion, but got another reply about the environmental assessment process. Maxime Bernier was up next, decrying deficits, to which Bill Morneau reminded him that the debt-to-GDP ratio was still going down. Bernier cried that only businessmen create investment, not governments, and then demanded confirmation that the Conservatives left a budget surplus. Morneau insisted that the fiscal update released at the end of last year showing a deficit was accurate. Leading off for the NDP was Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet, who raised one of the interviews from last night’s CBC special, and demanded help for the manufacturing sector. Navdeep Bains rose up, and said that an innovation agenda for the sector was on the way. Boutin-Sweet demanded a plan yesterday, to which Bains insisted that they have it. Irene Mathyssen took over to read the same again in English, and got the same answer.

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Roundup: Speaker Regan’s futile vow

The Speaker’s lecture about heckling versus ideas on Tuesday continues to make the rounds, alongside the Samara study that I wrote about the other day, but as Nick Taylor-Vaisey concludes, the vows to end heckling won’t last, which is just as well. What gets me are the constant head-shaking about how heckling wouldn’t happen in any other workplace, so why should it be acceptable in parliament. My response would be, and will always be, is that parliament is different, and that it shouldn’t be like any other workplace. Consider it a kind of by-product of parliamentary privilege that keeps the institution self-governing and in its own particular bubble against some of the laws and regulations that apply to other people. Parliament is special because nowhere else does this kind of debate happen, is there an accountability function to be had in open and on public display, and nowhere else is the exchange of ideas both vigorous, theatrical, and relevant to whether or not that MP will continue again past the next election. Once again, I will offer the caveat that yes, there is boorish and sexist heckling that should be called out and stamped down, but that is not necessarily representative of all heckling, and really, we haven’t seen the likes of a “calm down, baby” that made the John Crosbie/Sheila Copps exchanges so much a part of our collective memory. We don’t have MPs singing the national anthem to drown out the other side, or setting off firecrackers. And it’s a safe bet that the vast majority of MPs aren’t showing up for debates inebriated – something that could not be assured during the days of martini lunches and copious alcohol all around the Hill. This is probably the calmest our QPs have been in a generation, and yet we are still faced with these constant admonitions that it’s still somehow terrible. No, it’s not. If Elizabeth May can’t hear, that’s as much a function of the terrible acoustics in the Chamber, where you can’t often hear what’s being said even during the dullest of regular debates, than it is the reactions of those around her. If there is an issue that should be tackled, it’s the constant applause and standing ovations, and the use of scripts that has destroyed the debating ability of our MPs. Heckling is honestly the least of our worries.

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QP: Thanks for your pre-arranged meeting

Tuesday, and it was the first regular QP not attended by the new prime minister. Rona Ambrose led off, reading her thanks for Trudeau taking her advice and meeting with Denis Coderre — you know, the meeting he had already had planned before QP yesterday. Ambrose suggested that if he wanted to create other jobs, the government could permit the extension of the Toronto Island Airport, which would hopefully help Bombardier sell more jets. Marc Garneau responded by saying they took an undertaking to respect Toronto’s waterfront plans. Ambrose then raised the spectre of ISIS, and conflated the AQIM attack in Burkina Faso with the other conflict. Stephane Dion insisted that Canada was part of the fight against ISIS. Ambrose then called ISIS the greatest threat to women and GLBT rights, to which Sajjan insisted that ISIS was a threat that he was taking seriously. Gérard Deltell then repeated Ambrose’s first question with the spin of other Quebec industry, and got a response from Jim Carr about the importance of resource development, and took a a second question on Deltell in the same vein. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and demanded that the government not appeal the Human Rights Tribunal decision on First Nations child welfare, to which Jody Raybould-Wilson assured him that they would reform the child welfare system, but did leave the door open for judicial review. Mulcair then turned to the issue of existing pipeline approval processes, to which Catherine McKenna spoke about rebuilding trust with stakeholders. Mulcair demanded that the assessments be redone, but McKenna’s answer didn’t waver. Mulcair thundered about broken promises before pivoting to his scripted question about EI eligibility, to which MaryAnn Mihychuk assured him that they were conducting a comprehensive review.

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Roundup: Oversight and transparency

Oh, look – it’s the first Senate bat-signal of the year, this time with an interview with Senator Beth Marhsall on CBC Radio’s The House. The treatment of the interview does raise some of the usual problems when it comes to reporting what’s going on in the Senate – namely, that journalists who don’t follow the institution, or who haven’t actually given a critical reading of the Auditor General’s report mischaracterise it as showing “widespread abuse” when it certainly was not, and a good number of the report’s findings were in fact suspect because they were value judgements of individual auditors, many of whom were perfectly defensible. Marshall, however, thinks that the AG’s suggestion of an independent oversight body is a-okay, despite the fact that it’s a massive affront to parliamentary supremacy. The Senate is a legislative body and not a government department – it has to be able to run its own affairs, otherwise out whole exercise of Responsible Government is for naught, and we should hand power back to the Queen to exercise on our behalf. I can understand why Marshall might think this way – she is, after all, a former provincial Auditor General and would err on the side of the auditor’s recommendations regardless, but the fact that no reporter has ever pushed back against this notion and said “Whoa, parliamentary supremacy is a thing, no?” troubles me greatly. I still think that if an oversight body is to be created that it should follow the Lords model, as proposed by Senator McCoy, whereby you have a body of five, three of whom are Senators, and the other two being outsiders, for example with an auditor and a former judge. You get oversight and dispute resolution, but it also remains in control of the Senate, which is necessary for the exercise of parliamentary supremacy. Marshall’s other “fix” is the need to televise the Senate for transparency’s sake. While it’s a constant complaint, and yes, cameras will be coming within a year or two, the notion that it’s going to be a fix to any perceived woes is farcical. Why? With few exceptions, people don’t tune into the Commons outside of Question Period, despite our demands that we want to see our MPs on camera to know they’re doing their jobs. Cameras, meanwhile, have largely been blamed for why QP has become such a sideshow – they know they’re performing, and most of the flow of questions these days is atrocious because they’re simply trying to get news clips. I’m not sure how cameras will improve the “transparency” of the Senate any more than making the audio stream publicly available did, never mind that committees have been televised for decades. If people really wanted to find out what Senators do, there are more than enough opportunities – but they don’t care. It’s easier to listen to the received wisdom that they’re just napping on the public dime, and the people who could be changing that perception – journalists – are more than content to feed the established narrative instead.

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Roundup: Winds of change in the Senate

Interesting things are afoot in the Senate, with a number of new motions and bills introduced that could change the way it operates in the future, as well as debates on operations. It’s been pretty fascinating so far, and so far we’ve had:

  • Senator Housakos’ point of privilege on the lack of a Leader of the Government in the Senate;
  • Senator Carignan’s motion to call ministers to answer questions in the Chamber;
  • Senator Mercer tabling a bill that would amend the constitution to allow Senators to elect their own Speaker (and yes, this is the easiest amending formula);
  • Senator Wallace leading a debate on committee memberships and how they’re determined.

It’s all very interesting, and there has been some spectacular pushback on the facile notion by some senators that only partisan senators can be effective. There will have to be a great number of rule changes that will have to be debated by the Senate, and in particular the Rules, Procedures and Rights of Parliament committee, whenever it is formally struck (which should be very shortly). Some of those changes will have to be the determination of funding for the Senate Liberal caucus as they are not the government caucus, nor are they the opposition caucus (no matter that they currently sit on the government side, more out of convention than anything). Part of the discussions that were had in response to Senator Housakos’ point of privilege are that Question Period did not enter into the Senate until 1979 (ETA: This is disputed. Senate rules dating to 1969 include it, as does a 1916 edition of Bourinot. Thanks for the corrections), and that independent Senators have chaired committees in the past. These are all matters that will remain up for discussion, but the process of internal change in that Chamber is already upon them.

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Roundup: Looking forward to the first QP

It’s the first full sitting of the new parliament, which includes the first Question Period of the new session. Hooray! It’s going to be exciting, but there remains so much to be seen, so it’s hard to pre-judge the whole thing. Not to mention, the Liberals are keen to change the rules around QP by the New Year, so what happens this week may be a glimpse into a future that never will be. Will Speaker Regan enforce his heckle ban? Will MPs respect it? While Kady O’Malley offers a preview of what to expect, and the rest of the Ottawa Citizen staff gives their expectations for some of the match-ups, I’ll offer a few of my own observations. First of all, the first few QPs of any new parliament aren’t likely to be exciting because, frankly, everyone’s still a bit sanctimonious at this point. There’s all this hope and optimism, and of course they’re going to be civil and constructive because why wouldn’t they be? It’s also early enough that there really haven’t been too many screw-ups or missteps by the new government yet, so there’s not too much for the opposition to sink their teeth into just yet. We’ll see if Trudeau is going to show up, and how many questions he’ll answer, seeing as he plans to change the rules so that he’ll only be required to show up one day per week (but answer all questions on that day). As for some of these match-ups the Citizen staff came up with, well, it’s pretty obvious that they didn’t really watch QP in their last parliament because some of their descriptions and predicted “winners” are complete nonsense. Advantage Irene Mathyssen over Kent Hehr? Seriously? Mathyssen who reads her questions with sheets of legal-sized paper in front of her face is more impressive than Hehr, who has years of provincial experience? Sorry, no. Cullen as a “strong performer?” Seriously, did anyone actually listen to him ask questions in the last parliament? Because he didn’t so much ask questions as give soliloquies as to how terrible the government was with no actual question asked. Not sure how that makes him a “strong performer.”

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