QP: Twin moral panics in play

While Justin Trudeau was off to Toronto, Andrew Scheer was present for Question Period, and he led off with the role that Christopher Wylie, the infamous “Facebook whistleblower” had worked for the Liberals, and demanded answers. Scott a Brison pointed out that the Liberal Research Bureau had already issued a statement saying that they decided not to go ahead with his services and that he had no access to voter data. Scheer lamented that Trudeau didn’t answer — being cute because Trudeau was not present — and when he continued to rail about Wylie, Brison reiterate his response, and hit back with contracts the Conservatives tendered for their own data services. Alain Rayes took over in French to ask the same thing two more times, and Brison repeated his responses (albeit in English). Scheer got back up to rail about the “peoplekind” joke and the apparently scandalous news that Service Canada is not supposed to use the honourifics of “Mr.” of “Mrs.” The horror! Jean-Yves Duclos assured him that they can still use the honourifics, but that they were working to be more inclusive of all gender identities. Guy Caron led off for the NDP, condemning the lack of action on tax evasion despite the $1 billion investment to do so. Diane Lebouthillier got up to assure him that they were looking into tax evasion and had new agreements to get necessary data, and when Caron got up to rail that CRA was slapped with a $1 million fine for abusive behaviour, Lebouthillier reiterated that the case dated back to the Conservatives. Peter Julian got up to repeat the condemnation around tax evasion in English, and Lebouthillier reminded him that they now have the data they need. Julian tried one more time, throwing every thing else in the question, and Lebouthillier retorted that the OECD has recognised Canada’s leadership in data-driven combatting against tax evasion.

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Roundup: No, committee studies shouldn’t guide government

And lo, from Toronto’s den of hipsterdom, comes the plaintive wail that a government ignoring the work of committees is a betrayal of democracy. No, seriously – this is the complaint of VICE’s parliamentary columnist (who does not reside in Ottawa, or ever darken the halls of Parliament Hill, but whatever). Brown cites the centralization of power in the PMO and the growing power of branding as the forces that eclipse these poor committees, but it’s possibly the laziest gods damned complaint you can imagine.

So, for Brown’s edification, here are a few points that he overlooked in his ignorance of how things actually work in Ottawa:

  1. The role of Commons committees is not to be driving government policy, as Brown seems to think. The role of Parliament is to hold government to account, and committees are the workhorses of doing that, particularly when it comes to scrutinizing legislation. Senate committees, it should be noted, do a much more robust job of looking at areas of concern and coming up with policy recommendations, but that’s because the Senate is Parliament’s built-in think-tank, and it operates on a less partisan basis than Commons committees, who often approach their committee work with the lens of validating their party’s pre-existing positions.
  2. Not all committees are created equal. He may cite the work of a few of the “high profile” committees, writing on “sexier” topics like pharmacare, but because those are higher-profile committees, you’re seeing more studies that are bound to attract attention but have little substance to offer. If he wants to get a better sense of really effective committees that do really good work, he should look at ones like Public Accounts, who do the real work that Parliament is supposed to be doing, which, again, is holding government to account.
  3. Committees coming up with reports that the government does not then follow is hardly a sign of PMO centralization – if he wants an example of that, it was how committees operated in the Harper era, where they were all branch plants of minsters’ offices, with parliamentary secretaries directing the government MPs to do their bidding, and having ministerial staffers providing direction throughout. Oh, and the minister would often direct the committee to study topics that were of convenience (while he or she went ahead and legislated before waiting for the committee report). The way committees are operating currently is a vastly different environment than it was just a few years ago. But he might know that if he was actually here and paid attention to these things.

You’ll excuse me if I have little time for facile analysis like this. Whinging about PMO centralization without looking at the complicity of MPs themselves in the problem is to miss the point. And to miss the whole point of Parliament in a column like this makes it clear that nobody should be paying attention to the musings of its author.

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Roundup: The obtuse Atwal angles

Because the Jaspel Atwal story refuses to go away, due to equal parts of inept messaging by the government and obtuseness on the parts of both the opposition and much of the media, it seems like we should dig into a few more aspects of it. If you haven’t yet, read John Ivison’s column that threads the needle on just what the senior bureaucrats were warning about with regard to the possibility of “rogue elements” in India’s government, and the invitation that MP Randeep Sarai extended to Atwal while Atwal was already in the country. If more people read this, we would have far fewer of the questions we’re hearing about how both “versions” of the incident can be true. And hey, people familiar with both Indian politics and security services are adding that this is more than plausible.

In the meantime, opposition parties are trying to use their parliamentary tools to continue to make hay of this. Ralph Goodale got hauled before the national security committee yesterday, and he was unable to give very many answers – completely understandably – and suggested that MPs use the new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to discuss classified issues like this. It didn’t stop the opposition from trying to call the National Security Advisor to committee, but that was blocked. But as Stephanie Carvin points out below, MPs are not great at this kind of thing, and risk doing even more damage (and We The Media aren’t helping).

In case you were wondering why the Conservatives dropped their planned Supply Day motion to try and wedge the government over support for a united India as a pretext to bash the Atwal issue some more, they faced an outcry of Sikhs in Canada and backed down (but are insisting that the motion is still on the Order Paper and can be debated on a future Supply Day).

In the meantime, India raised their tariffs on imports of pulses, and suddenly every single Canadian pundit joined the Conservatives in blaming it on Trudeau’s India trip and the Atwal accusations. Not one of them noted that India is having a bit of a domestic crisis with its farmers, and there is a global glut of pulse crops, which is depressing prices (for which India is trying to boost domestic production). But why look for facts when you can try to wedge it into a narrative you’ve already decided on? Cripes.


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Roundup: An involuntary nomination

The outcome at the Status of Women committee was not unexpected, had as much sulking and grousing as was to be expected. In a public and not secret vote, the Liberals and NDP members of the committee rejected the Conservatives’ choice of Rachael Harder to chair the committee, and when the Liberals nominated Karen Vecchio in her place, Vecchio tried to back out but was overruled, and those same Liberal and Conservative members voted her in.

And then the bellyaching began. A sour press release was issued about how this was somehow about “bullying and intimidation” of some poor young woman (which is a ridiculous characterisation), but that they would accept the democratic will of the committee. And the pundit class took to Twitter to decry how bizarre it was that a woman was being forced to take the chair of a committee that she didn’t want. I’m not exactly sympathetic to these cries, because this is what happens when you try to pull a stunt for the sake of being a provocateur, as Scheer is trying to do, but you don’t have the votes to back it up. Oh, and then they tried to wedge this into the frame of it being a distraction from the tax proposals, when it shouldn’t need to be said that this was a distraction of the Conservatives’ own making, owing to their particular tactical ineptitude.

Meanwhile, Liberals took to tweeting about how this would have made Harder Andrew Scheer’s “spokesperson” on the committee, which is bizarre and wrong – the chair is the committee’s spokesperson. It’s baffling that they would try to spin it in this fashion. Then again, one shouldn’t be surpised given how badly this whole affair has been for people describing how things work in Parliament. And it shouldn’t surprise me, and yet here we are, that not one journalist writing about this story, nor any pundit commenting on it, remarked about the fact that it makes no sense to put your critic forward as committee chair. None. The chair’s role is to be neutral, to run the meeting, arbitrate rules disputes and to ensure that witnesses and questioners stay within their timelines. They’re not supposed to vote unless it’s to break a tie, which shouldn’t happen very often given the numbers at play. Why would you want your critic – your point person in holding the government and in particular that associated minister, to account – to be hobbled in this way on committee, is baffling. It’s utterly incomprehensible if you follow the basics of how parliament is supposed to work. And yet nobody saw fit to call Scheer out on this fact. These details matter.


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Roundup: All abuzz about Netflix

It’s probably not a big surprise that the story for which the most ink (physical or digital, take your pick) was spilled yesterday were the culture policy changes that Mélanie Joly announced, punctuated by the grand announcement that Netflix had committed to spending half a billion dollars over five years on Canadian productions. But in there was also news that there would be no big bailout for the news media in this country, and there would be some funding boosts for the Canada Media Fund, the Canada Music Fund and the Canada Book Fund, and a creative export strategy, along with previously announced reforms of the Copyright Board.

Suffice to say, there’s a fair amount of grumbling from traditional broadcasters that Neflix is essentially getting away with murder, not bound by the same CanCon obligations of traditional broadcasters, nor are other Internet giants like Google and Facebook being asked to contribute to the same content creation funds that traditional media are. And there is some pretty legitimate concerns about this announced Netflix deal because it’s pretty opaque – Netflix will continue to be able to operate as a black box when it comes to their subscriber data, and while Sean Casey went on Power & Politics to insist that the $500 million was new money (given that Netflix had previously told Parliament that they were already spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Canada), it really doesn’t seem like that’s anything new given that previous statement. Netflix also says that the money isn’t coming from the recent rate-hike in Canada, but that’s not washing with a number of people. The Financial Post has a fairly comprehensive look at the announcement here, including the fact that the announcement seems to leave a lot of the heavy lifting into the future, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

I do think it should be incumbent upon us to remember that Netflix has not been a net benefit to the cultural sector in Canada. The late Denis McGrath used to refer to them as a “parasite” on the Canadian broadcast sector because they put no money into the production of shows that they streamed, encouraging the cord-cutting that starved the very platforms who produced those shows that they later streamed of funding. It’s a complex problem, and a handful of Netflix originals aren’t going to be the panacea for the Canadian film and television industry. If anything, it may hasten the decline.

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Roundup: The needless drama over the Status of Women chair

The news yesterday that the Liberals on the Commons standing committee on the status of women walked out rather than vote on the Conservatives’ choice for chair, Rachael Harder, certainly had a bit of drama to it, but underneath that surface-level bit of excitement, so much of this story defies sense.

For starters, it makes no sense that the Conservatives would name their chosen critic for the portfolio to be the committee chair. Why? Because a committee chair is supposed to be a somewhat more neutral figure who presides over the meetings in order to maintain decorum, decide on questions of order and procedure, and only vote in the event of breaking a tie. These are qualities that a critic should be dealing with. No, a critic should be doing the work of leading the questions of witnesses and doing the work of holding the government to account. That is not the chair’s job. Furthermore, if Andrew Scheer is going to insist on calling his critics “shadow ministers,” then perhaps he should actually treat them as such which means not having them on committees at all – and yes, the semantic difference is important. If you want to implement a shadow ministerial system then start behaving like that’s what they are. Otherwise, changing their nomenclature is nothing more than a twee affectation that he shouldn’t get so uppity about (and he has been).

Meanwhile, for the rest of the day, the Conservatives tried to spin this as a distraction from the tax change proposals that they are otherwise getting hammered on when they put her up for the position of chair knowing full well that this would be an issue. The NDP were out on Monday afternoon in the Foyer decrying this possibility and they went ahead with it. They created their own distraction and then tried to spin it as the Liberals using it as such. The Liberals didn’t create this drama, so you can’t accuse them of creating something from nothing.

The Conservatives have three members on the committee – Harder, Karen Vecchio, and Martin Shields, and if it makes no sense to put the critic in the role of chair, then why not put Vecchio forward? Is it because she isn’t looked kindly upon by Campaign Life Coalition? I would have thought her more than capable of the role otherwise, which is why this mystifies me unless this is something that the Conservatives were looking to try and force a confrontation of some variety by putting forward a critic and then candidate for Chair that would deliberately offend the sensibilities of the other parties – something that you shouldn’t be doing in a committee setting because committees, as the lifeblood of parliament, are supposed to be less partisan and more collegial.

This is just one more example of how the current iteration of the Conservative party doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Since Scheer took over the leadership, there seems to have been a sudden loss of know-how amongst the party’s senior staffers and they’re making all manner of really dumb tactical mistakes. You also have to wonder how much of this is also because the party had spent their nine years in power trying to burn down many of the norms of our parliamentary system and treating the institutions with utter disdain, and now that they’re back in opposition, they have simply lost the capacity to engage with them properly, leading to these kinds of mindless choices that just shoot themselves in the foot. It’s not promising for a party that is supposed to be considered a government in waiting.

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QP: Women ask the questions

It being International Women’s Day, one expected that all questions posed would be by women MPs. Rona Ambrose led off, trolling for support for her bill on training judges in sexual assault law (which, incidentally, I wrote about for this week’s Law Times, and the legal community was pretty clear that they felt this wasn’t the right way to go and this bill could impact on judicial independence). Justin Trudeau spoke about the importance of supporting survivors of sexual assault, but would not commit to supporting it. After another round of the same, Ambrose wanted support for Wynn’s Law on bail applications, to which Trudeau said that the justice minister spoke to Constable Wynn’s window but would not commit to supporting it. Ambrose asked about a bill on human trafficking and why it eliminated back-to-back sentencing provisions, but Trudeau responded in his condemnation of those crimes but not in backing down on the provisions in the bill given their commitment to the Charter. Ambrose asked about helping women come forward to report sexual assault, and Trudeau noted that this was a concern and they have a ways to go. Shiela Malcolmson led off, heralding Iceland’s work on pay equity legislation, to which Trudeau said they were working on legislation. Brigitte Sansoucy asked another pay equity question in French, and got much the same answer. Sansoucy moved onto tax evasion and demands to end amnesty deals, and Trudeau noted that they were working on ending tax evasion by investing in the CRA’s capacity to do so. Tracey Ramsey asked the same again in English, and got the same answer.

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QP: Electoral reform apoplexy

After the howls of outrage by the NDP and Elizabeth May in the Foyer about announcement that the government was abandoning its plans for electoral reform, it was promising to be a rowdy QP. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying about the state of the deficit on future generations. Justin Trudeau responded by reminding her that the Canada Child Benefit was giving direct aid to the middle class. Ambrose worried about the bogey man of taxes on medical and dental benefits, and Trudeau started off with the usual points about the middle class tax cut before saying that he would not raise those taxes. Ambrose was a bit thrown from her points, and asked something vague about youth, and Trudeau noted the various programs they’ve implemented. Denis Lebel was up next, and clearly having prepared a question on the benefit taxes, he wanted Trudeau to repeat the answer in French, and Trudeau dutifully did so. Lebel then asked about softwood lumber, and Trudeau listed the many files they had worked on with the Americans and softwood lumber was on that list. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and wanted Trudeau to admit that he lied on electoral reform. Trudeau listed the many positions out there, said there was no consensus and didn’t want to harm country’s stability at this time. Mulcair went another round, got the same response. Mulcair hounded Trudeau on the topic, but Trudeau said he wasn’t going to just check off a item on a list if it was the wrong thing to do.

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Roundup: MyDemocracy survey says…

The results of the MyDemocracy.ca survey got published yesterday, and it’s full of some fairly contradictory results about people generally being reasonably satisfied with our system (or at least not wildly dissatisfied), preferring constituency connections and accountability (but also co-operation, which makes accountability difficult), while also wanting more diversity of views (unless it lets in radicals and extremists). Also, no mandatory voting, online voting, or lowering the voting age. (Full report here). So yeah. And already you’ve got Nathan Cullen sore that it doesn’t say “Canadians want PR” because that’s not what it was asking. Anyway, Philippe Lagassé is best positioned to weigh in on it, so here we go:

Reading through the methodology and the reasoning behind the questions was fairly illuminating and something the detractors of the survey should probably want to actually do before they scroll ahead to where they go “Why doesn’t it say that Canadians really want proportional representation? Stupid biased survey” because we know that’s what they want to hear.

Of course, if you ask me, this should provide enough justification for them to smother this whole thing in the cradle and wash their hands of it, saying it turns out that Canadians aren’t too concerned with reform and hey, it turns out it’s way more complex than we thought so yeah, bad promise, we’ll do better next time, and then move onto some actual topics of importance than just trying to appease a few sore losers.

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Roundup: No, Monsef was not demoted

So, cabinet shuffle, and while everyone keeps saying this is somehow Trump-focused, I’m not sure what labour, status of women, or democratic institutions has to do with Trump. There will be all manner of hot takes, and yes, you’ll get mine too. It was striking in that just barely over a year into the new government, two of the most senior hands have not only been bounced from cabinet, but from parliament as a whole – John McCallum headed to China as our new ambassador, and Stéphane Dion to parts unknown in what is likely to be a diplomatic posting of some variety, but what we’re not quite sure just yet. In a government that has very few experienced hands, this is something that does give me some pause. MaryAnn Mihychuk’s ouster, however, was not a great surprise given the stuff that came out when she had a number of duties taken away from her portfolio, particularly around her attitude and her ambition to be a regional political minister in a cabinet that has largely eschewed them. Chrystia Freeland to foreign affairs is not a surprise (making her the first Liberal woman foreign affairs minister in the country’s history – previous ones had been Conservatives), Patty Hajdu to labour seems a natural next step for the job she has been doing, and François-Philippe Champagne to trade is ambitious but he proved himself as Bill Morneau’s parliamentary secretary over the past year. Another first in Cabinet is Ahmed Hussen to immigration, who is Somali-born (and while some have said he’s the first Black cabinet minister, that would actually be Lincoln Alexander).

And then there’s Maryam Monsef. She’s off to Status of Women, which people keep insisting is a demotion, but I have a hard time accepting that notion. She carried a file that is the equivalent of a flaming bag of excrement and smiled all the way through. Sure, she’s no longer the person to finish trying to smother that file as elegantly as possible (so good luck with that, Karina Gould), but a demotion would have been getting the Mihychuk treatment. Status of Women is not a demotion. People went on TV scratching their heads about what challenges are in that department, apparently having not paid attention to the big files in that department, including sorting pay equity, ensuring that all government departments actually implement gender-based analysis, and that tiny little file about the plan to combat gender-based violence. You know, no challenges at all. Plus, she’s gone from a make-work portfolio that didn’t have an actual department – just a handful of PCO staffers to support her – to an actual line-department. It’s not a demotion. And did I mention good luck to Gould because yeah, now she gets to try to stick handle trying to find a way to kill the electoral reform election promise as gracefully as possible (despite Kady O’Malley’s belief that the PM thinks that all hope is not yet lost). Because seriously – this is a file that needs to be put out of its misery before it can cause actual damage to our democratic system.

Meanwhile, if you want hot takes on the cabinet shuffle, there are plenty here from Michael Den Tandt on Freeland, Andrew Potter on Dion, Susan Delacourt susses out the dynamics, while Paul Wells adds both some global perspective and insight into what it says about Trudeau.

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