Roundup: Not headed for a debt bomb

In light of the fall economic update, and the myriad of concerns about the level of the deficit and lack of a plan to get to balance in the near term, economist Kevin Milligan took us all to school over Twitter yesterday. The main message – that it’s not 1995, and we can’t keep talking about the deficit as though it were.

Later on, Milligan took exception to the notion that the government has backtracked on their tax reform promises and made the situation worse. Not so, he tells us.

So there you have it. Armchair punditry on deficits or tax changes (even from some economists) doesn’t necessarily stack up.

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Roundup: More tax change caterwauling

Another day, and more moaning about the proposed small business tax changes, which have now been equated to “class warfare”! Yes, a pair of tax lawyers wrote in the Financial Post yesterday about how the ability for small business owners to split their income with stay-at-home spouses was great policy because it was first proposed back in 1966. I kid you not. Fortunately, economist Kevin Milligan is back after a few days offline, and can help sort some of this out.

And then there’s this kind of silly thinking:

Government is not a business. It cannot be run like one, no matter how many times people like to chant it as a slogan. It fundamentally does not operate in the same way, nor can it ever run in even approximately the same way. The absolute fundamental principles do not translate because government has no bottom line. The sooner people grasp this, the sooner we may have more rational discussions on how to better operate government in a sane and rational manner.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne is unconvinced by all of the caterwauling about the proposed changes, not seeing the moral advantage that small businesspeople are apparently owed, and suggests instead that the incentives to incorporate be reduced by bringing the topline personal income tax rate and the small business rate closer together.

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Roundup: Concern trolling over tax loopholes

There’s been a great deal of concern trolling going on over the past few days when it comes to the planned changes to self-incorporation to close the tax loopholes found therein. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer tweeted out another of his disingenuous messages yesterday, talking about “hiking taxes” on doctors – who are leading the concern trolling charge against this closure of self-incorporation loopholes – which is not surprising, but nevertheless not exactly the truth about what is going on.

Meanwhile, economist Kevin Milligan has been dismantling the concern trolling arguments with aplomb, so I’ll let him take it from here:

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Roundup: NDP catch the Corbynite smugness

It was a bit odd, yesterday, watching NDP MP Erin Weir stand up before Question Period to offer congratulations to UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on his “success” during this week’s election, considering that Corbyn lost. Weir considered it an inspiration to their own leadership candidates, each of whom also offered variations thereof over social media. (Andrew Scheer, for the record, also tweeted encouragement to Theresa May for “strong stable leadership” – a veritable echo of Stephen Harper’s 2011 campaign slogan – only to see May’s fortunes crumble).

Of course, this NDP praise of Corbyn ignores the context in which he “won” (by which we mean lost) this week, and that was that Labour’s share of the vote and seat count went up in spite of Corbyn’s leadership and not because of it. Why? Because he’s been an absolute disaster as a party leader, and an even bigger disaster as opposition leader, and in many instances couldn’t even be bothered to do his job in trying to hold the government to account on matters of supply – an appalling dereliction of duty. And this is without getting into Corbyn’s record of being a terrorist sympathizer, someone who took money from Iran’s propaganda networks and whose activist base has a disturbing tendency to anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, this “success” of Corbyn’s (and by “success” we mean he lost), Twitter was full of mystifying smugness from hard left-wing types, insisting that it meant that Bernie Sanders would have won the general election (never mind that he couldn’t even win the primaries). Yes, the fact that Corbyn managed to motivate the youth vote is something that will need study in the weeks to come, I’m not sure that we can discount the fact that there is a certain naïveté with the youth response to his manifesto promises that was full of holes, and there was a youth response to Sanders as well, which some have attributed to the “authenticity” of his being a political survivor. Can this translate into a mass movement? I have my doubts.

The smugness around his “win” (which, was in fact a loss) however, is a bit reminiscent of the NDP in 2011 when they “won” Official Opposition, and were similarly smug beyond all comprehension about it (so much so that they were going out of their way to break traditions and conventions around things like office spaces in the Centre Block to rub the Liberals’ noses in it). That we’re seeing more of this smugness around a loss make a return is yet another curiosity that I’m not sure I will ever understand.

This all having been said, here’s Colby Cosh talking about what lessons the UK election may have for Canada, including the desire to export brand-Corbyn globally.

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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 painful lesson in committee cooperation

News broke yesterday morning that rogue Liberal backbencher Nate Erskine-Smith had been reassigned from the public safety committee by the party whip, and immediately everyone was all “uh oh, this is totally because he spoke out against his party.” Yes, Erskine-Smith has been making all kinds of waves, talking about his disagreement with the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, advocating for the decriminalisation of all illegal drugs to treat them as a public health as opposed to a criminal law issue, and most recently, prostrating himself before his electorate to decry his government’s decision to abandon electoral reform (and using the curious tactic of using language that both undermines his government’s legitimacy and advocates for a system that undermines the very agency he has as an MP to stand apart from his party, but whatever).

Of course, it also appears that none of those commenters from the peanut gallery actually bothered to read the story about why Erskine-Smith was yanked from the committee, and it had little to do with his outspokenness than the fact that he was overly naïve as a newbie MP if trying to make parliament a nicer place. In this case, he wanted to operate by consensus on the committee and tried to get the other parties onside for amending the bill on establishing a national security committee of parliamentarians. The problem was that in the process, he was manipulated by Tony Clement into deleting some of his government’s own provisions because, you know, consensus and working together! So yeah, painful lesson, and maybe he’ll learn to be a little less trusting the next time. I get that you want parliament to be a nicer place and politics to be done better, but if you’re not careful, your opponents will (metaphorically) shiv you because they have their own goals, and they don’t necessarily want to buy into your platform. And let’s not forget that the competition of ideas is part of what keeps our system vital and accountable.

Of course, the fact that the whip could take this step has the usual suspects up in arms about how too much power is in the hands of the leader (by way of the whip), and the standard calls about reforming committees were trotted out. The Liberal Party’s promises on committee reform – more resources, electing chairs by secret ballot, and ensuring parliamentary secretaries are no longer voting members – were pretty much accomplished, but Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong has his own reform ideas (try to look surprised), but reading them over, I have doubts. In particular, his plan to take away the power to assign MPs to committees and replacing it with a secret ballot process is dubious, in particular because a) I can’t imagine trying to count those ballots, b) it won’t solve the problems of MPs all trying to get onto the “sexier” committees while leaving some of the less exciting ones to be scrounging for members, c) critics – which the leader assigns – are on those committees, so for a party like the NDP, the secret balloting process would be useless, and d) this is a typical Chong suggestion of a solution in search of a problem. MPs like to bitch and moan about being assigned to committees they don’t like, but rarely actually ask for committee assignments, nor do they seem to have an appreciation that sometimes the party has to spread out their talent to places where it’s needed as opposed to where MPs want to go.

I’m also not keen on Chong’s plan to merge five committees to bring down the total number because there’s no actual need. We have 338 MPs and we don’t have a super-sized cabinet with a bloated parliamentary secretary brigade to match it, and in the previous parliament, they already reduced committees from 12 to 10 members apiece. There are enough MPs to go around, and merging the mandates of committees overloads them rather than letting them undertake studies of their own accord, which they should be doing. There’s no real crisis of overloading MPs with work right now (which was not always the case), so this particular suggestion seems gratuitous.

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Roundup: Modernization beyond cameras

The Senate’s modernization committee came out with their first report yesterday that had 21 recommendations, almost all of which were fairly common-sense, but wouldn’t you know it, the only one that most media outlets glommed onto was the one about broadcasting Senate proceedings, never mind that it was pretty much always the plan to do so once they moved to the new chamber in 2018 (as it was too expensive in the current one given the maxed out infrastructure). Other recommendations that caught the mainstream attention were developing a mechanism to split up omnibus bills, giving a more proportional role for non-aligned senators on committees and coming up with a modified way of selecting the Senate Speaker (in a rubric that doesn’t require constitutional amendment) were also up there, while Kady also clocked the recommendation on ensuring that they recognise any group over nine senators that wants to organise themselves as a caucus or parliamentary group that can choose its own leader, and that those groups can have access to sufficient research dollars.

Less publicised were the number one recommendation of a mission statement for the Chamber to guide its activities in the Westminster tradition, finding ways to reorganise its Order Paper and Senate Question Period to not only formalise inviting ministers but also Officers of Parliament (but I’m less keen on reducing it to two days per week to give the “Government Representative” a break – if he wants the salary, he should keep up with the workload). The Independent Working Group says they’re mostly happy with these changes, but want more assurances of representation on key committees like Senate Rules and Internal Economy, where they need to have the actual power to break up the duopoly that currently exists between the established parties, which is fair.

What the report does not say is that parties should be eliminated, and in fact goes out to specifically say that the institution functions within the Westminster model, which includes government and opposition roles, and nothing in that report is intended to assume or advocate for the elimination of those roles, and that’s important. Opposition is important for the practice of accountability, and that’s something the Senate is very good at providing. There will be more reports and recommendations to come, and I’ll have more to say in the coming days, but I’m heartened to see that there is a commitment to preserving these key features, rather than to blow them up in the continued kneejerk allergy to partisanship that currently grips the imagination of would-be Senate reformers.

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Roundup: Accountability that never was

It feels like a while since I’ve had to go to bat for the existence of the Senate, so Robyn Urback’s column in the National Post yesterday was pretty much the bat-signal shining in the sky. To wit, Urback somewhat lazily trades on the established tropes of the Senate, and takes what was a joke on the part of Senator Nancy Ruth about airplane food (cold camembert and broken crackers was a joke, people! Senators are allowed to have a dry sense of humour, last I checked) to clutch her pearls about how terribly elitist and entitled our senators allegedly are (when really, the vast majority are very much not).

Urback’s big complaint however is that despite Justin Trudeau’s promises of change to the institution, giving it more independence is apparently all a sham. There are a few problems with this hypothesis, however, and most can pretty much be chalked up to the run-of-the-mill ignorance of the institution, its history, and its proper function in our parliamentary system. Her complaints that the rules that allowed Senator Mike Duffy to claim all of those expenses is wrong, because rules have tightened since, and the fact that he can still claim for his Ottawa residence is the reality that comes with what we are asking of Senators. The problem with Duffy is that he never should have been appointed as a senator for PEI, and he was shameless enough to claim the expenses for his Ottawa residence without actually making a legitimate point of having an actual full-time residence on the island and a small condo or apartment in Ottawa for when the Senate was in session. Complaints that the Senate Liberals are simply declared to be independents while still remaining partisans ignores the substance of how they have behaved in the time since Trudeau made the declaration, and the fact that they have been kicking the government just as hard, if not harder, than the Conservatives in the Senate since Trudeau came to power. This is not an insignificant thing. But then there is Urback’s ultimate complaint, revolving around a canard about who senators are accountable to.

The Senate was never made to be accountable to parties or party leaders. The whole point of the institution, and the very reason it was constructed with the institutional independence that it has (non-renewable appointments to age 75 with extremely difficult conditions for removal) is so that the Senate can act on a check for a prime minister with a majority government, and they have numerous times since confederation. It needs to have the ability to tell truth to power without fear of reprisal, and that includes the power to kill bad bills – because they do get through the Commons more often than you’d like to think. They have never been accountable to a party or leader, and that’s a good thing. Sure, they can act in lockstep with a party out of sentimentality (or ignorance, if you look at the batches appointed post-2008), but this was never a formal check on their powers, nor should it be. If Urback or anyone else can tell me how you get an effective check on a majority prime minister any other way, I’m all ears, but the chamber has a purpose in the way it was constructed. Getting the vapours over a more formal independence is ignorant of the 149 years of history of the chamber and its operations.

Where Urback does have a point is in noting that the independent appointments board made their recommendations on the short-list without having conducted any interviews or face-to-face meetings. That is a problem that undermines the whole point of the appointment process, because it leaves the final vetting up to the PMO. One hopes that this will be corrected in the new permanent process that is being undertaken now, but there are still worrying signs about how that is being conducted. Self-nominations and people getting letters of recommendation seems like a poor way to get quality people who aren’t driven by ego and status, and we can hope that this isn’t all they’re replying on.

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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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QP: Back in the saddle

Everyone’s back, and raring to go, and how I’ve missed them all! Well, okay, not everyone’s back — the PM and several of his ministers are off at the UN General Assembly (where Canada’s Back™), but these things happen.

Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, decrying tax increases along with a potential carbon tax and CPP increases. Bill Morneau stood up to lament the challenges facing Canadians, and noted the reduction in middle-class taxes and the Canadian Child Benefit. Ambrose gave the doom statistics, and Morneau reminded her that investments and not austerity were geared toward future growth. Ambrose changed tactics and sounded the alarm about a peacekeeping mission in sun-Saharan Africa. Harjit Sajjan reminded her that it was dangerous, and that was why he was doing the necessary homework beforehand. Ambrose worried that troops were being used as pawns on a political chessboard in a bid for a UN seat. Sajjan reminded her that it was not just about troops, but a whole-of-government approach to peace operations and stability. Ambrose switched to French to demand a debate and vote on a deployment. Sajjan said they welcomed a healthy debate, but did not commit to a vote (as is proper). Thomas Mulcair was up next, decrying the “cuts” (read: changed escalator) to health transfers. Jane Philpott said she was talking with the provinces, but didn’t commit to restoring the old escalator. Mulcair asked again in English, got the same answer, and then Mulcair demanded that the government vote in favour of nuclear disarmament at the UN this week. Sajjan said that the best way was a pragmatic step-by-step approach. Mulcair demanded GHG reduction targets, and Catherine McKenna said that they were being transparent in their approach.

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