Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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Roundup: “Prominent” Canadians demand unicorns

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

Handwavey. Nonsense.

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

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

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

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Roundup: Sound the independent thought alarm

Every time I read these headlines, I sigh and shake my head a little, because here we go again. “Indigenous Liberal MP breaks ranks with government on BC’s Site C Dam” it reads. The MP is Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and by “breaking ranks,” he has questions for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans – who grants approvals for these kinds of things – and he plans to ask him in caucus next week. Oooh, someone had better sound the independent thought alarm!

It seems that most of my fellow journalists have forgotten that it’s the job of backbenchers – even those of the governing party – to hold the government (meaning cabinet) to account. They’re supposed to ask questions and to not just give them a pass. Ouellette is doing his job. But by sensationalizing it (which this headline clearly does), and portraying it as “breaking ranks” (which he’s not – there have been no votes that he’s gone off-side with) is both demeaning to his job, and it reinforces the notion that MPs are supposed to be drones parroting the lines of their leaders, which is absurd. Not only that, but We The Media nevertheless insist that MPs are supposed to do their jobs and represent their constituents and address issues and not just parrot talking points, and yet we call them out the moment that they do just that. Why? Seriously – why are we doing this? We’re actively being destructive to our democratic system when we pull this kind of nonsense. There are far better and more effective ways that this story could have been framed that don’t privilege party discipline (which again, not actually being broken here) and this notion that MPs must be in lockstep. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. And yet here we are.

Honestly, we need to do better if we expect better democratic outcomes in this country. We are part of the problem, and we should stop being just that.

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Roundup: Nuance versus brand damage

As the Conservatives head to Halifax for their caucus retreat, the Kellie Leitch/Canadian Values question is threatening to expose some of the caucus rifts – particularly as Leitch feels a bit put out that Rona Ambrose decided to distance herself and the party from Leitch’s proposal, and Leitch has been musing openly about filing a formal complaint with the party that Ambrose has essentially involved herself in the leadership campaign in this way. There are a couple of things that I would note from all of this – one is that we place way too much emphasis on caucus solidarity on all things in this country, and blow any disagreement between party members out of all sense of proportion, usually with some variation of “Is [insert party leader here] losing control of their caucus?!” It’s hyperbolic and it’s nonsense, and it enforces the perceived need for everyone to always be in lock-step, which is terrible for democracy. The other thing I would note is that this is that Ambrose was scrambling to prevent damaging the Conservative brand, and Leitch’s inability to grasp nuance is apparently also a sign that she isn’t able to grasp the magnitude of this floodgate that she’s opened. The fact that she keeps insisting that this isn’t what it clearly is – directed toward certain Muslim communities (remember kids, a dog-whistle is a coded message, while this one is right out there in the open) – while saying that it’s about trying to find a “unified Canadian identity” and not about identity politics (no seriously, she said this – you can check the video), continues to highlight that she is completely and utterly tone deaf. Ambrose is being left to pick up the pieces of Leitch crashing around like the proverbial bull in the china shop, because Leitch is too tone deaf to see what she’s doing to the party brand. So sure, there are rifts in the caucus being formed as a result. While we shouldn’t try to pretend that parties need to be uniform in all things, Leitch should also realise that some rifts are bad for the brand you’re trying to build and probably shouldn’t be papered over.

And while we’re on the subject of Leitch, John McCallum calls her anti-Canadian values screening proposal “Orwellian.”

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Roundup: Leitch the desperate, hollow shell

Apparently we’re still talking about Kellie Leitch and her “anti-Canadian values” screening, because why not? The Canadian Press kicked off the day by putting Leitch’s assertion that it would be akin to “asking some simple questions” to their Baloney Metre™, and lo and behold, the experts they spoke to pretty much laughed it out of the room, earning Leitch’s supposition a rare “full of baloney” rating. It seems that “a few simple questions” just teaches people how to lie to give the “right” answers, and that proper interviews with people trained to know whether people are lying is so prohibitively expensive that it’s never going to happen. So there’s that. Much later in the day, Jason Kenney decided to weigh in from Alberta, and pretty much eviscerated Leitch by saying that this position is a new one for her that she never articulated before in cabinet or caucus, and that she doesn’t understand the nuance around the issue. But then again, we’ve pretty much established that Leitch lacks any real semblance of emotional quotient or self-awareness, so her inability to grasp nuance should not be a surprise to anyone.

Meanwhile, Peter Loewen reminds us that we’re not as perfectly tolerant as we like to believe, and he has the data to prove it, which is why Leitch’s message will find a home in places. Scott Reid looks over the record of Leitch’s campaign manager, who helped Rob Ford get elected, and notes that by this point, Leitch is less of a candidate than a strategy in human form (which is kind of what Jason Kenney is hinting at when noting that this position is all new for Leitch). Paul Wells notes the low ceiling for the kind of rhetoric that Leitch is now taking on, and while he sees the strategic value in such a position, he also offers some ideas for better choices than Leitch. Tabatha Southey offers her particular acid take on the Leitch situation, and her insistence on digging so much that she is in danger of becoming a mole person. And of course, there’s the At Issue panel looking at Leitch as well.

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Roundup: Revisionist history mythologizing

The electoral reform committee was back yesterday and the “star” witness was former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, currently heading the institute that bears his name. If you’ve been out of the loop, Broadbent is an unabashed supporter of Proportional Representation, and figures that Mixed-Member Proportional is the cat’s pyjamas, and proceeded to regale the committee with any number of ludicrous statements about both the current system and the purported wonders of MMP, and then delivered this particular gem: that MMP would have spared the west the National Energy Programme in the 1980s.

I. Can’t. Even.

The amount of mythologizing around the NEP in this country borders on psychosis. There was a time not so long ago that people also caterwauled that a Triple-E senate would also have prevented the NEP, with no actual proof that would be the case if you actually stopped to think about what would be involved in creating such an institution (particularly the imposition of party discipline because if you think you would be electing 105 independent senators, you’re even more delusional than the premise of the question belies). Most of these mythologies around the NEP forget that there was a history involved with global energy crises, broad support in the rest of the country, and that it was a global recession that happened around the same time that was largely responsible for the economic collapse that ensued as opposed to the NEP itself, but the two became conflated in the minds of most people. It didn’t happen in a vacuum or because Pierre Elliot Trudeau simply rubbed his hands and tried to come up with a diabolical plan to screw the West. For Broadbent to suddenly claim that a PR system would have ensured more regional voices at the table and common sense would have prevailed is simply revisionist history combined with the kind of unicorn logic that his preferred voting system would have been responsible only for the good things in history and never the bad. It’s egregious bullshit and needs to be called out as such.

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Roundup: Ignoring accountability, again

Samara Canada, the country’s civic engagement organisation, put out a report over the weekend about electoral reform and what the various kinds of systems looked like. And it’s a decent enough report on its own, but what struck me was the fact that yet again, we get a report on electoral systems that ignores the biggest single point of discussion with any electoral system – accountability. While I tweeted this concern, the report author responded thusly:

While the fact that two systems have a correlation between MPs and ridings, it doesn’t spell out the fact there are accountability mechanism, particularly around both nomination processes and in being able to punish an MP at the ballot box if necessary. Why this needs to be spelled out is because with Proportional Representation systems that have lists, the ability for voters to determine who is on that list is a big issue. Is it a slate? Then do you not vote for the slate for one or two bad names on that list? Is it an open list? How does that complicate the ballot process, particularly if you want to punish a bad MP? There is mention paid in the report to parties who want to put more women and visible minorities on their lists as a selling feature, but nothing about where those lists become problems when it comes to holding that party to account, or those MPs when it comes to re-election.

Similarly, one party government does not tell us anything about how we hold a government to account at election time, nor does it spell out the problems with holding governments to account when they are part of a coalition. The ability to punish a government at the ballot box is a feature of our current system, and this needs to be stated as such. Conversely, the fact that in many countries that use PR systems and have coalition governments, central parties can stay in power for decades by simply shuffling their coalition partners around periodically. This is not holding them to account, nor is it actually healthy for democracy if parties stay in power in perpetuity. They actually need to be out of power from time to time in order to refresh themselves, but this is not mentioned anywhere.

While I appreciate that the author had limited space to work in, accountability is a concept that needs to be stated explicitly and discussed in open terms rather than in vague mentions like he did here. As with the whole electoral reform committee process we’ve seen, so much attention is paid to fetishizing the ballot without actually ever mentioning accountability that it’s only having half the discussion. Accountability matters. Being able to punish at the ballot box is just as important – if not more so – than electing someone. Being able to throw the bums out is one of the biggest single features of our current system, and yet that gets mentioned almost nowhere over the course of these discussions. It’s ridiculous and wrong, and we need to talk about it openly and frankly if we’re to have a true and proper discussion about what’s at stake.

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Roundup: A rapidly shrinking legacy

A little less than a year after the last election, Stephen Harper announced yesterday that he was finally resigning his seat as an MP, and will be off to face future challenges under the banner of his own private consultation firm, Harper and Associates. Apparently he is looking forward to “building something new” and will have an international focus in his new endeavours, which I find a bit curious considering that this was someone who had never even left the country until he became Leader of the Opposition, and whose foreign policy during his time in government was a tad, well, ham-fisted. Oh, and he’ll be joining a speaker’s bureau and tour the world to give speeches, which again is against the grain of his time in office when he was known for not only speaking as little as possible, but also of scrubbing any bits of humanity from his speeches in order to make them as dull and forgettable as possible with no hint of personality in them. We’ll see if he plans to continue this in his new life. Meanwhile, here are some reactions from some of his former cabinet ministers, other notable Canadians, and five ways that Harper changed politics in Canada. Susan Delacourt writes about Harper’s legacy of being a lone wolf and keeping everyone at a distance.

If we’re going to talk legacy, then his longevity is one of the biggest points, but we’ll see how lasting any of his accomplishments are. His ability to reunite the Conservative party, such as it was (because let’s face it, this was not the Progressive Conservative party of John A. Macdonald, John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark or Kim Campbell) was an accomplishment, but we’ll see if it holds under new leadership or if we have a new voting system. After all, a proportional representation system would see the parts of the conservative coalition break-off out of the big tent into smaller factions that would see advantage in gaining outsized power from a new system, and you can bet that the social conservative elements would not have the patience to stick with a party that has ignored them if they can gain seats and leverage in another way. The vast majority of his policy agenda is well on the way to being rolled back under the new government, with the exception of the fiscal stranglehold that Harper put on the nation’s finances with his decision to cut the GST by two points. That is the only real policy area that the new government has shown no appetite to roll back, but if deficits persist, then raising the GST may be something they would consider (though the fact that some of the provinces have moved into that tax room – which was Harper’s plan all along, in order to see the federal government retreat further from their affairs). He has a legacy of some Supreme Court of Canada judgments that have put a lot of roadblocks on attempts to change the constitution by backdoor or “unofficial” means, so take that for what you will. But his other plan of obliterating the Liberals and turning Canada into a two-party state of Conservatives versus NDP – as he so nearly succeeded in doing in 2011 – has unravelled spectacularly, and saw not only the resurgence of the Liberal party, but a deep wounding of the NDP in the process. So what does this all add up to? I guess we’ll have to wait to see the history books, but it is a legacy that seems to have a shrinking quality less than a year after his time in office ended.

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Roundup: Reporting the terror threat

The government released their 2016 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada yesterday, and there are a few items of note, particularly that there are more Canadians who are suspected of travelling abroad to engage in terrorist activities, more women are joining the cause, and more of them are returning to Canada after some time abroad, all of which needs to be monitored. The biggest threat remains those lone wolves who are “inspired” by terrorist ideology rather than being directed from abroad, because quite obviously it’s much harder to detect and monitor. Apparently it’s also news that Ralph Goodale is calling ISIS “Daesh” in the report, but some terror experts will note that this is just a bit of name-calling. On a related note, RCMP are talking about their roadblocks in the fight against terrorism, which is a lot about the difficulty in turning evidence gathered from partners like CSIS into something they can admit to the courts, which is apparently harder than it seems. I’m not really sure that I’ve got a lot to add on this one, just that despite the various howls from both the Conservatives and the NDP in how the Liberals have been handling the terror file – the Conservatives insisting that the Liberals have given it up and are running away from the fight (objectively not the case), and the NDP caterwauling that C-51 needs to be repealed full stop – that the Liberals do indeed seem to be taking this seriously. While experts have been praising them on their go-slow approach rather than legislating in haste, I think it’s also notable that they are making reports like these public in order to give a realistic picture of what is going on, rather than relying on hysteria in order to try and build public support that way. We’ll no doubt see a lot more from them in the next couple of months as the new national security committee of parliamentarians is set up, and consultations on the state of our anti-terror laws transition into legislation, but this was a good reminder that things are in the works. In the meantime, here are some more thoughts from a real expert on these kinds of things, Stephanie Carvin.

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